In Spring 2014 Adelphi University’s MFA program of Creative Writing welcomed visiting writer, John Murillo, whose first poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie was a finalist for both the 2011 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award. As well as teaching the graduate poetry workshop, John also shared his insights with the students and faculty in two brown bag presentations on craft. What follows is an excerpt of his discussion on the ethics of confession. For more Murillo, visit here.
the ethics of confession
“History is in the mouth of the teller.”
JM: …There’s a story you guys might have heard about this little boy who was reading stories, and he loved books about lions. He started to notice a pattern in his reading, and he goes to his mom, and he says, “Mom, the lion is the king of the jungle, so why is it in all these books that the man always wins?” And she says, “Because lions don’t write books.”
“Mom, the lion is the king of the jungle, why is it in all these books that the man always wins?”
And she says, “Because lions don’t write books.”
And I think that kind of speaks to what you’re saying, as far as the truth being in the mouth of the teller. That’s another issue, right? Whose truth? We’ll come to that in a little bit too.
What I want to do now is direct you to this work by Jake Adam York. This is what really got me going on all this. Two things really: the essay by Larry Levis called “Mock Mockers after That” and also a lecture that I listened to where he’s talking about the ethics of the elegy. I’ll refer to that towards the end of this conversation.
Reading that, I came across Jake Adam York’s new book, Abide. A little bit about Jake Adam York: he died in 2012, and he was a year younger than me. I didn’t know him, but we have a lot of friends in common—a lot of good friends in common. And everybody loves him… From what I hear, he’s a good guy, a genuine soul, a generous spirit. He gave my book a positive read on Goodreads so I like him. He knows poetry, clearly. We both won the NEA fellowship in 2012, and he passed before our money was distributed. And there was this petition going around—poets signing, so that his wife and daughter would be able to get his wins. Him being a year younger than me and passing all of a sudden—it really hit home.
So when I found out this book was coming out, Abide, I wanted to review it as a way of paying tribute to him, and to see what his work was about. He was raised in the South, in Alabama, a white man. And a lot of his work has to do with the Civil Rights Movement. One of the things he took as his life’s mission was that he wanted to elegize 126 martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.
One of the things he took as his life’s mission was that he wanted to elegize 126 martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.
He knew it wouldn’t happen in one book, but he wanted to do it over the course of his life. In his short life, he was able to get three books published, and his last one came out posthumously. It kind of made me curious—Why is this white Southerner wanting to write poems about slain civil rights activists? And so that drew me in as well. In this latest book he addressed it. There’s an afterword, and I’ll read this to you. It’s a little lengthy, but I think it’s necessary to get the gist of his mission. He says:
To elegize the martyrs of the movement requires delicacy. Requires reflection. For a white man to elegize men, women, and children, murdered by men whom I resembled, demographically, by men to whom I may be related or for whom I may be mistaken—for this man to elegize these martyrs requires hesitation, a stutter, a silence in which the ghosts of the murderers may be sloughed from my skin, even if only for a moment. In these moments of hesitation, these poems consider or enact the consideration of the necessary ethical questions—what does it mean to elegize, what does it mean to elegize martyrs, what does it mean to disturb the symmetries of the South’s racial politics or racial poetics?
The project has two strands, then, an elegiac and an ethical one. The elegiac, I now refer to as Inscriptions for Air: it includes much of the work of the previous volumes, and it requires the work of volumes to come. Inscriptions for Air is then a book without a single spine, without a single binding. My hope is that its presence in a larger body of work that asks not only questions of memory but also questions of life will suggest the necessary continuity and perpetuity of the work of memory. We visit memory sites, like the Civil Rights Memorial, but if memory lives only there, it isn’t memory anymore. Memory lives in the breath we breathe, in the air we make together.
The ethical strand explores in part the right of the elegist to approach the moment of martyrdom or the lives almost erased there. As the work of elegy in this regard involves crossing the color line DuBois wrote about and which so many segregationists and murderers reinscribed, the ethical work also involves entering what the poet Édouard Glissant called relation—a space of improvised relationships, dialogue between self and other that recognizes but is not bound by historical hierarchies of race, culture, or class. In relation, self and other approach (or try to approach) each other as equals, as citizens of a moment in which time and place may be reframed.
For York, history doesn’t belong to just one group or another, it’s what binds us. So in writing about these slain civil rights martyrs, he’s writing about the South, which is to say he’s writing to his own heritage, his own story. There is no your story, my story—there is only our story.
Continue the conversation here. (minute 20:35)