Winner of the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books, Jamaal May’s electric debut collection Hum embodies the vitality and struggle of becoming a man. The word “elegy” is not entirely right for such energetic, muscular poems, but there is mourning here for May’s native Detroit and the men of his family who were scarred by addiction, war, and racism. The speaker of these poems fights back with beauty, noticing the shine of the handcuffs while enduring police harassment, or the inspiring message on the plastic bag that holds his relative’s ashes “in a Chinese takeout box”. In the age of e-readers, AJB’s elegant book design makes a case for the pleasures of print. Poems titled after various phobias are interspersed through the book on black paper with white type, creating moments of visual “hush” amid the “hum” of text.
Jamaal has kindly given me permission to reprint the following two poems, which first appeared in Poetry Magazine and Blackbird, respectively. Follow him on Twitter @JamaalMay.
Hum for the Bolt
It could of course be silk. Fifty yards or so
of the next closest thing to water to the touch,
or it could just as easily be a shaft of wood
crumpling a man struck between spaulder and helm.
But now, with the rain making a noisy erasure
of this town, it is the flash that arrives
and leaves at nearly the same moment. It’s what I want
to be in this moment, in this doorway,
because much as I’d love to be the silk-shimmer
against the curve of anyone’s arm,
as brutal and impeccable as it’d be to soar
from a crossbow with a whistle and have a man
switch off upon my arrival, it is nothing
compared to that moment when I eat the dark,
draw shadows in quick strokes across wall
and start a tongue counting
down to thunder. That counting that says,
I am this far. I am this close.
Man Matching Description
Because the silk scarf could have cradled
a neck as delicate as that of a cygnet,
but was instead used in last night’s strangling,
it is possible to marvel at the finish on handcuffs.
Because I can imagine handcuffs,
pummeled by stones until shimmering,
the flashlight that sears my eyes
is too perfect to look away.
Because a flashlight has more power
on a southern roadside than my name and blood
combined and there is no power in the very human
frequency range of my voice and my name is dead
in my mouth and my name is in a clear font on a license
I can’t reach for before being drawn down on—
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
say, Swan! I am only a swan.