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Murder Ballads Paperback – April 1, 2005
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The poems in *Murder Ballads* aren't actual murder ballads, per se; but they do carry the same preoccupations with culpability and death. In York's capable hands, the south becomes not only culpable in the history of Jim Crow. The south is also a victim. York refuses easy blame games. Racism and southern history provide a backdrop for the volume, but history, both private and public, is York's main theme.
In "Elegy for James Knox," York muses on a black Alabama convict whose death in 1924 led to the eventual end of Alabama's convict-labor program. "Because a shackle is never enough to hold a man," the poem begins, referring to the shackles that held Knox. However, the shackles alone don't hold a body: "the body must be made/to hold the man." By the end of the poem, the speaker realizes that ultimately, he can never escape the shadow of this crime. Looking at a small piece of iron, the speaker muses:
. . . I think of you,
a small, hard strip of Alabama
that's losing, that's turning back
red as the clay that buries it all--
was it ever, will it ever be, enough?
The poem's final question resonates throughout this impressive collection as York's speakers wrestle and attempt to come to terms with the past, all the while knowing that they can never escape it and never defeat it.