by Jamaal May
Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2013
Paper, 74 pages
Reviewed by: Susan Cohen
Jamaal May has a fine-tuned ear for the music of machinery, as you might expect of a poet who hails from Detroit and is also a performance artist. But he writes about more than the decaying Motor City in this debut collection, which won the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books. In poems notable for their sophistication, intelligence, and inventiveness, as well as their attention to sound, May explores the shifty boundaries between man and man-made world—a world that rarely shuts up.
The machines in Hum threaten both nature and people, and don’t remain under the control of the humans who manufactured them. The speaker in “Detroit Hum Ending with Bones,” for example, laments the lack of bees in the city, and then notes that his cell phone can confuse the signals in a hive and “make a drone go haywire/and spiral into the grass.” A group of men spend hours tinkering with a car before they must acknowledge they can’t fix its digital parts in “On Metal,” and: “No one is happy to learn what an afternoon of chafed/knuckles, metal on skin, no longer solves.” Hum depicts broken people surrounded by broken engines.
That May’s concerns are as often philosophical as sociological is clear from the opening poem, “Still Life,” set in an inner as well as an inner-city landscape, “the shuttered district,/a factory of shattered vials.” A child plays in this wreckage, his internal life “kept quiet/by humming a lullaby of static and burble” as if the voice in the boy’s head belongs to an old television. He wears a towel cape, stashes an exacto knife in his sock and cradles rocks, yet he’s more threatened than threatening. The poem plays with these notions of internal and external, seen and unseen—recurring themes in Hum—and ends with these stanzas:
The boy in the boy’s head
watches sparse traffic
from a warehouse window
and takes note 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.
It doesn’t matter whether the poem is autobiographical and told from the distance of time or from the distance of an unidentified observer. Throughout the collection, May appears less interested in the narrative of memoir and more interested in the lyrics shared between people and their crumbling surroundings. He dubs seven poems “hums,” but the gadgets in them also buzz, clink, rattle and whir; they may be as tame as a sewing machine or as menacing as a helicopter above a desert battlefield. Sometimes they only begin benignly, like a coughing snow blower just before it slices off a father’s finger in Detroit. Throughout, there’s an undertone of menace.
For example, the sestina “Hum of the Machine God” starts:
There isn’t much to discuss with the Machine
God, though its voice is hard to ignore;
it speaks in planks of wood shaped for the sea,
sputters smoke, eats grass. It speaks in snow
spit into piles, commands the motion of a needle
through a hem. It hums. It waits.
Debut books these days often begin as projects, but Hum doesn’t read like one. Rather, a diverse collection of free verse and received and invented forms, it relies on sequences for a sense of unity. Besides the scattered hums, a second imaginative series with equally creative titles rifts on phobias like “Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored” and “Chionophobia: Fear of Snow.” In a third sequence, origami creatures speak. Folded paper frogs or tigers aren’t mechanical, but they are products—manmade versions of nature.
These recurring images as well as themes also hold the book together. So, the speaker in “How to Disappear Completely” advises: “Become origami./Fold yourself smaller/than ever before. Become less. More/in some ways but less/in the way famine is less.” In another poem, a man stopped by the police and shoved against a car with a gun against his cheek so that he has no way to reach for his ID, tells us: “and my name is asked again—I want to/screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.”
Frequently, this wish for visibility or invisibility occurs in the context of violence. One of the strongest poems recounts a fight that cost the speaker part of his vision, which is gradually diminishing in one eye. He recalls how viciously he beat the boy who clawed up at his face. He stares down from a bridge, closing the bad eye “like aiming through a gunsight,” and studies his blurry 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.”
As Hum investigates appearances and disappearances, and the mechanisms of the human head and heart, May repeatedly blurs the boundaries between people and their machines. In the last poem, “Ask What I’ve Been,” the speaker has been a construction crane with “balled fists” that “toppled buildings of boys,” and “rifled through the pockets/of their ruins.”
May’s transmutations and pronoun shifts keep readers off-balance. Yet, he retains such control in this mature first collection and crafts such beautiful language that his poems exhilarate rather than exasperate. They demand to be re-read. May, who earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and a Cave Canem fellowship, also works as an editor, filmmaker, and teacher. Most importantly, he’s an acute observer who has a tremendous amount to say.
Susan Cohen is the author of Throat Singing and recent poems and reviews in Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, Sou’wester, and Tar River Poetry, among other publications. She lives in Berkeley and has an MFA from Pacific University.