The blood and bolts of the city of Detroit run through the veins of Hum, Jamaal May’s debut collection of poetry (Alice James Books, 2013). Lyrical, sometimes political, but always honest, to read these poems is to enter a hive bursting with music and sound, image and purpose. The themes and subjects vary, but we quickly learn to trust the voice that guides us from one poem’s density to the next.
May begins the collection with “Still Life,” a poem in which we meet a boy who must come to terms with his surroundings—the inner-city, the destructive nature of progress and time, the hum of fear. Descriptive, the poem begins: “Boy with roof shingles / duct taped to shins and forearms / threading barbed wire through pant loops.” This image elicits despair, but we soon find out that the boy is at play: “Boy with a safety pin-clasped / bath towel of a cape / tucking exacto knife into sock.” These short, sharp lines lead us to the “boy in the boy’s head” who truly sees the grim surroundings, specifically the rust of the overpass hidden by paint that will eventually “swallow” the boy’s “song.” In spite of the forces that want to break him, the boy resists the bleakness and keeps humming, and it is this humming that is constant throughout the book, a humming that reminds us of our surroundings and how easily we can go from being its masters to being its victims.
We see the boy again in the sestina, “Hum of the Machine God,” but the boy by now is aware that the “Machine God” is everywhere and “its voice is hard to ignore.” This time, rust is not the force that brings destruction, but the boy’s prayer against his father:
Yes, he prayed the snow-
blower would take Father’s hand. Yes, the needle
of Father’s scream, as a thumb was machined
clean off, brought icicles down.
The machine rips off the father’s thumb and the boy begins to understand that machines can become the means by which we punish those who hurt us. But overall, the boy wants to escape his monochrome life: “The boy listened for the sea. / Gripped his shovel. Gripped his oar.”
In many of these poems, May surprises us by giving us a new metaphor, an unexpected phrase, a new image. Sometimes we are in a bedroom and we can’t help but open a window to enter memory: there we see our sister, a hummingbird, a cellphone, till we reach claims such as this: “There is always a hymn / waiting for ears. A Tibetan singing bowl / looking for an audience” (“A Detroit Hum Ending with Bones”). We find these claims, and images, at the right place in the body of the poem—to slow us down, to makes us think about what has come before and what will come after. Maybe this is why one of the enjoyable elements of reading this collection is May’s use of imagery. Take for example the following lines from the poem, “Masticated Light”:
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.
Here’s another instance of image from the poem, “Hum for the Hammer”: “May sand paper be the rough // hand that rubs you smooth.” In the poem, “How to Get Your Gun Safely Out of Your Mouth,” May distracts us with a beautiful accumulation of images so we can turn our dark thoughts away from death:
Go ahead and squeeze, but not before you put on some tea, clean two
cups, lift shades and pin back curtains. Not before the end of this
song, before dawn reaches in, before you turn the page or a woman
apologizes for dialing the wrong man again—
By the end of this poem, as in many of the others quoted, we cease to think about pulling the trigger; instead, we “point to heaven” and “squeeze until the clip is empty like the chamber.” This is how we move here — swiftly, jumping from one image to the next — and we never get lost, for we are assured by the poet that there’s always a way back. Adding texture to the collection, and to the reading experience, are the dark pages that contain poems about phobias. Six poems compose these pages, and have titles such as, “Thalassophobia: Fear of the Sea,” “Aichmophobia: Fear of Needles,” and “Mechanophobia: Fear of Machines.” The first poem in this group of phobias, “Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored,” is printed on a dark page, contrasting with the white text which highlights the speaker’s fear:
Look for me
in scattered windshield beneath an overpass,
on the sculpture of a man with metal skin grafts,
in patterns on mud-draggled wood, feathers
circling leaves in rainwater — look. Even the blade
of a knife holds my quickly fading likeness
while I run out of ways to say I am here.
Although not one of the “phobia” poems, in “How to Disappear Completely,” May continues his meditation on the theme of erasure:
bend light around your skin until it colors you clear,
disappear like silica in a kiln, become
glass and glass beads, become
the staggered whir of an exhausted fan,
a presence only noticed when gone.
Later in this poem, May commands: “[b]ecome less. More / in some ways but less / in the same way a famine is less.” This is an image that evokes all that we lack, the absence — as the poem suggests — that we truly are.
In the poem, “Man Matching Description,” May reverses the speaker’s predicament of invisibility to encounter the fear of being targeted for the wrong reasons. Racially profiled by police, the speaker is angry and frustrated, but he also feels fear:
because the baton is long against my window,
the gun somehow longer against my cheek,
the vehicle cold against my abdomen
as my shirt rises twisted in fingers
and my name is asked again — I want to
screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.
Few things can save us if we fall prey to racist or corrupt police, the poem suggests. But how to defend ourselves when everything we are condemns us: our clothes, our language, our skin color? In the last lines the speaker longs for transformation, one that can happen only in poetry.
In her blurb, Natasha Trethewey claims that Hum is “concerned with what’s beneath the surfaces of things — the unseen that eats away at us or does the work of sustaining us.” This claim is sound if we consider that what “eats away at us” is fear, and what “sustains us” is our sense of hope. But there is more than fear and hope in these poems. There is also faith for what a poem can do to fortify and embolden us. With this in mind, the poems in Hum will not disappoint. They will help us adjust to what must come.
Octavio Quintanilla is the author of the poetry collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014). His work has appeared in Salamander, RHINO, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwestern American Literature and elsewhere. He is the regional editor for Texas Books in Review and teaches Literature and Creative Writing in the M.A./M.F.A. program at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, TX.