The Crowd He Becomes

15 September 1963, Birmingham

Later he will say he did not do it,
he was home at breakfast, just ask the wife,
say they heard some radio preacher doing
love thy neighbor while birds filled up the yard.
Later, he will say he did not do it then tell
how he didn't, lean in close to say
if he would have done it it wouldn't have been
alone, he would have had a driver
and a man out west to phone in threats
to draw the cops away. They'd ease
through empty streets to plant their package
then glide away, their route thick with friends,
a thousand ways to disappear.

The DA will lean, will see his would have
dashboard-lit, driving Dynamite Hill,
headlights, radio dead. Would have
in the shotgun seat, sticks sweating in his grip,
shadow steering through the city's sleep.
Will see them driving, out before the paperboys,
ready to throw when the dark is right.
See him Christmas, few years back,
outside the preacher's house, thin fuse of cigarette,
newspaper spread on the bus protests.
See flash, shock push him from the dark,
burn his shadow where anyone could see.
Something dark in the lenses of the bottle trees.

The photographer spots him eyeing
the bombed-out church, minutes after,
a face he's seen before, flash on the shards
of phone-booths and broken windows
he'll follow through the horrid and the horrified
while the cops arrive, the state patrol arrives
with bayonets instead of hoses, bayonets
instead of dogs, while congregants arrive
between firemen and plainclothes Klansmen
and the children, the children arrive
and depart, and there, the smirk he'll follow
through uniforms and Sunday black,
into the park, then lose him as it fills.

Will stand in the blur of what arrives and wonder
where he could have gone. Whether he'd cut
toward the depot, through the railyards to wind back home,
or north through the nervous blocks, or circle back
for another view, maybe shadowed in a doorway,
japing in a storefront window, listening at a sandwich stand
while everyone is talking, his work on every tongue.
Maybe he could drift through the crush of lookers
in cigarette smoke, in the breath of many lungs,
common, innocuous, a cloud about to disappear.

Will stand imagining him split at each intersection,
now four of him working the city's riot,
one with a bomb in his Sunday Herald,
one with a gun hung out the window racing
to a segregation rally, one with a bullhorn
and a speech for the news if they want it right,
and one just waiting for some midnight's cool
when he can stand beneath the vacant windows
and search for that fire in the face of Christ
before driving out past the mills. On the ridge
he'll see Vulcan's torch is red, but not for them.
Shadows reel from the furnace sheds,
birds exploding, blown from molten light.

The mayor says all of us are victims, innocent victims.
The lawyer kills his radio. When folks ask later
who did it, the lawyer says I'll tell you who.
Who is everyone who talks of niggers. Who is everyone
who slurs to his neighbors and his sons. Everyone
who jokes about niggers and everyone
who laughs at the jokes. Everyone who's quiet,
who lets it happen. Now his voice flaps in the rafters
of the meeting hall, and everyone is quiet.
I'll tell you who did it, he says. We all did.

The photographer keeps his beat, past the crater
in the church foundation, through the park,
into the midday rush, just where he lost him.
In the darkroom, he kept arriving, his face
framed between elbows, caught in the thrall,
or his crewcut, his smile cropped by arms.
Now his haircut, half-rolled sleeve, cigarette lip,
his eye pass by a dozen times, and more.
He could be anyone, could be everyone
wandering the storefronts, spying behind his News.
The photographer follows each one, cocked
and ready to shoot, but his lens can't catch them all
so he just stands, tracing their paths,
he just stands, lost in the crowd he becomes.

Jake Adam York, "The Crowd He Becomes" from A Murmuration of Starlings. Copyright © 2008 by Jake Adam York.  Reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press.
Source: A Murmuration of Starlings (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008)
More Poems by Jake Adam York