Natasha Trethewey calls May’s debut collection, Hum, “a meditation on the machinery of living, an extended ode to sound and silence.” These themes artfully emerge not only in May’s subject matter, but also in his skillful use of language and sound. May hails from Detroit, and his poetry buzzes with machines—cars, factories, freezers, foundries.
But as Marty Cain insightfully points out in his review, “…in Hum, machinery isn’t a predictable representation of modern despair. Instead, it embodies a spiritual force, presenting a potential for energy, for both violence and renewal…What makes Hum stand above so many other debuts is not only May’s willingness to expose his own vulnerabilities, but that he isn’t paralyzed by his personal perspective. The poems move increasingly outward from the self as the collection progresses; in several poems specifically focused on war, technology’s potential for violence becomes fully realized—war begins to function as a kind of machine.”
When it comes to technology, May is no alarmist. It’s the friction between machines and humans (and humans with each other) that fuels these incisive, original poems. “Technological advancement is perhaps less frightening to me than to many of my peers,” May tells Stacy Balkun:
I’m not terrified of the presumed oncoming apocalypse facilitated by Facebook or the new Playstation. Television didn’t end the world and neither will Tumblr. I believe in something intrinsically human that will always exist outside of popular culture and the latest grown folk bugaboos. That intrinsically human thing is often ugly, narcissistic, and petty, but it was there before status updates and anonymous comments existed. Before our current age, “trolls” would just show up at your lunch counter, sit-in protest and dump ketchup and sugar on your head.
The other side of this paradigm is that some of the cooler things about people have also been around for a while and aren’t going anywhere. For example, our ache for the connection we find through art only seems to have been brought into relief by the modern era of immediate, low-effort gratification. If technology was as capable of short-circuiting what is at the core of humanity, there’s no way in hell I’d be able to walk into classroom after classroom of teens and preteens and get them excited to write poems. There wouldn’t be more poetry readings and journals and more Americans writing than ever before in the country’s history.
I’ve never seen or heard an interview with Jack White that asks him how his guitar solo on “Ball and Biscuit” will cure cancer and stave off the zombie apocalypse. I once worried about the fairness of this paradigm, but I’m starting to see it as a show of respect. That people keep wondering how poetry will change the world seems to start with the implicit assumption that it could. I believe it already does, but not in the singular immediate way that seems to be demanded by some to justify the creation of literature. It is one of many human endeavors that, taken together, help to repair our minds into more thoughtful devices.
Art, be it poetry, music, sculpture, puppetry—the whole of it, inspires change on a personal level rather than a global one. This is important because the individual is the whole. The creation of art argues that people are connected, ideas are connected, the past and future are connected by this moment. Meanwhile, exploitation of the poor, drone strikes that kill hundreds of children, slavery, genocide, land theft—these are all acts that depend upon convincing large groups of usually well-meaning people that “they are not us.” Dean Young once said, “The highest accomplishment of the human consciousness is the imagination, and the highest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” Poetry, along with every other art, is a tool for teaching and expanding empathy. Violence and injustice cannot endure empathy.
You can hear Jamaal May read and celebrate the launch of Hum at 5 Elements Gallery in Detroit on April 9th and at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival at the Peabody Essex Museum at 10:30 a.m. on May 4th (in the Bartlett Gallery).
If you’re in New York City mid-April, you can see Jamaal at the following events:
The LouderARTS Project at Bar 13, E. 13th Street at 7:00 p.m. on April 14th
The Sidewalk Cafe, East Village at 7:00 p.m. on April 15th
Sarah Lawrence College, 7:00 p.m. on April 16th
NYU’s Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, 5:00 p.m. on April 18th
Boy with roof shingles
duct taped to shins and forearms
threading barbed wire through pant loops.
Boy with a safety pin-clasped
bath towel of a cape
tucking exacto knife into sock.
Boy with rocks. Boy
with a metal grate for a shield.
Boy with a guardian
daemon and ﬂawless skin.
Boy in the shuttered district,
a factory of shattered vials,
green and brown glass.
Boy with a tiny voice
and crooked cursive handwriting,
with bent nails in a pouch,
metal ﬂashing scavenged in bits,
with half a neck tie
tied around the brow
pushing a ﬁre door wide.
Boy with a boy living
The boy in the boy’s head
watches sparse trafﬁc
from a warehouse window
and takes notes on where
overpass paint hides rust,
where the cyan bubbles up
into a patchwork of pock
and crumbling disease,
a thief in the bridge’s body
he doesn’t see, but knows
is coming tomorrow
to swallow his song.
In a waiting room at the Kresge Eye Center
my fingers trace the outline of folded money
and I know the two hundred fifty dollars there
is made up of two hundred forty-five I can’t afford to spend
but will spend on a calm voice that can explain
how I can be repaired. Instead, the words legally blind
and nothing can be done mean I’ll spend
the rest of the week closing an eye to the world,
watching how easily this becomes that.
The lampposts lining the walk home
are the thinnest spears I’ve ever seen, a row of trash cans
becomes discarded war drums, and teeth
in the mouth of an oncoming truck
want to tear through me. Some of me
always wants to be swallowed.
The last thing my doctor said before I lost
my insurance was to see a vision specialist
about the way light struggles and bends
through my deformed cornea.
Before the exam I never closed my right eye
and watched the world become a melting watercolor
with the left. Before a doctor shot light
into the twitching thing, before I realized
how little light I could handle, I never
thought much of the boy who clawed up at me
I could see the reflective mesh of his shoes,
the liquor bottle tossed in an arc
even before it shattered at my feet, and I am embarrassed
at how sharp my eyes were, how deft my body,
my limbs closing the distance—how easily
I owned his face, its fear, and fought back tears—
all of it mine. I don’t want to remember the eyes
that glanced over shoulder just before
I dragged him like a gazelle into the grass
that was a stretch of gravel and glass
outside a liquor store. How easily this becomes that.
On a suspension bridge I close my bad eye
and it’s like aiming through a gunsight;
even the good eye is only as good as whatever glass
an optometrist can shape. I watch sundown
become a mouth. Broad and black-throated,
it devours the skyline and every reflection.
Horns sprout from the head of my silhouette
rippling dark, dark, dark against the haze of water
and I try to squint that monster
into the shape of a man.
Hidden by the overhang of a circular bar,
lies a man who’s seen the bottom of his tumbler.
No one is above being invisible,
not even me, with my shirt tidily pressed,
another man who’s seen the bottom of a tumbler.
Each swirl of scotch nudges closer to the rim.
Not even my shirt will stay tidy and pressed,
my tie cinched and secure. It’s waiting to unravel.
Each swig of scotch nudges me closer to a rim
every day, drops roll off the cliff of my parted lips.
My tie cinched and secure, I’m waiting to unravel,
waiting to spill into sleep—joints sore and speaking.
Day drops off a cliff. My lips part,
I drool on scuffs and bruises from boot and heel.
What I spill seeps, joins the floor, speaking
about straight shots taken to the head.
I’m all scuffle and bruises barely healed.
A swallow of whiskey won’t drown my questions.
Another shot won’t take me out of my head.
Why do I dress with this much care?
Swallow whiskey? Drown in questions?
Why a beard so prepared, ensemble so neat?
Why dress this carefully?
Why bother to drag a razor through the shadow
of a beard, prepare, assemble, neatly
tie a loop with no beginning or end, only
to be a bother, a draggled, razor-thin shadow,
hidden by the overhang of a circular bar.
Coming Back for You
Tonight the tide will stretch out. Syringes
and splinters of glass will be collected.
Shells and stones that aren’t needed
until morning will be left cleaving beach.
You’ll forget that sound in a month
then remember it on a runway waiting
for your ears to pop. In Pittsburgh
a vat overflows and scalds a foundryman
while a young chef somewhere smothers
a fire because she lost control of it.
In a backyard, a boy learns a boomerang
doesn’t come back to you, only your location;
if you should be elsewhere when I return
I may be lost, twirling out of view, while
exhaust hurries from a bus in Michigan
hurrying a bouquet of passengers from an airport
to the missed. An arm scratched red.
A zippered pouch full of cures. An addict
who can’t stop picking at his face
rolls a scab between fingers
for the remainder of the trip. You watch him
while stroking a cowry on the necklace I strung
in Oregon. A pair of teenagers too frightened
to head home fall asleep watching dawn,
the Pacific comes ashore to reclaim a hermit crab
finding only the shell, immovable where it rests.
Macrophobia: Fear of Waiting
I love too many women is not the best lead-in
for a conversation that will end
with me telling you I love you
for the first time. And this might not be
the best first date topic. I know this,
but I know it the same way
twelve-year-old me knew the firecracker
in my hand would be a dull burst
lost in the grass if I let it go too soon—
I’m asking if you are like me.
Do you let go too soon? Are you afraid
more of having hands covered in ash
than you are of getting the timing wrong?
This is stupid, but I couldn’t wait
to tell you everything
about the stranger, who after pushing
a peppermint over my teeth with her tongue,
told me she never wanted to leave
the listening range of my rambling.
This meant a lot coming from a wanderer
who would never have to hear it again;
I was booked on a plane that had already boarded
when a voice calling my name over the PA
reminded me I could not afford to wait for a later flight,
and ever since, I’ve been wondering
what runway my hesitation will invoke next,
wondering if it was bad timing
to finally ask for the dance I promised
after you had already become a twirling body
and nervous hand spilling rum across
someone else’s shoes? I get it, you got sick
of your life standing like a loaded gun—
everyday with me another hangfire. This wait
isn’t foreign to any of us. This wait is a friend
splitting blinds, looking for his cliché of a father.
It is a foot pressed against the door
of a locked closet. A girl stands on line in the rain
holding two concert tickets and this
is what rattles us, the space after
a question mark. Blood work and CAT scans.
What man faces a firing squad
without eventually longing for an exit wound.
This is stupid, but I was afraid to tell you
I kept fiddling with my phone through dinner
because I was fascinated
that every time I tried to type love,
I miss the o and hit i instead.
I live you is a mistake I make so often,
I wonder if it’s not
what I’ve been really meaning to say.
I want to say there is patience at the center
of every firework I hear bloom
from my balcony, signaling the end
of a Tigers game, but I can’t see them.
The second floor isn’t high enough. Clouds
above the taller buildings flicker, reflecting
their light, so tonight I’m going to watch that instead.
Make an evening of it. A dinner date
with myself and a bowl of handmade guacamole
from Honey Bee Market, and this time
I’m going to wait
to find out if one, just one,
can get high enough for me to see it explode.
About Jamaal May
Jamaal May was born in 1982 in Detroit, Michigan, where he has taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer, working with such artists as The Four Tops, The Last Poets, and Dead Prez. His first book, Hum, received the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books, the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, and an NAACP Image Award nomination. Other honors include the Spirit of Detroit Award, the 2013 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Frost Place, Bread Loaf Writers Conference, The Stadler Center for Poetry at Bucknell University, and Kenyon College where we was named a 2014-2016 Kenyon Review Fellow.
Recent poetry can be found in The Believer, The New Republic, Poetry, New England Review, Poetry Daily, Best American Poetry 2014, and the anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation (Viking/Penguin, 2015). Recent prose appears online from Poets and Writers Magazine as well as The Poetry Foundation. From Detroit, Jamaal mentors young writers, teaches in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program, and co-directs the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series with poet Tarfia Faizullah.
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All poems © Jamaal May. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Hum (Alice James Books) and were reprinted with permission from the author and Alice James Books.