Book Review: Hum & The Big Book of Exit Stratagies by Jamaal May

There are poems, and then there is poetry- there are pieces you read that do not effect you, or that you enjoy but never think about. Then there are poems that are poetry- words strung together that seem to grab whatever it is that feels like a soul inside you and rips it open, squeezes it dry. Demands that your eyes consume it again and again, in it’s entirety, in certain lines, or stanzas or coupling of words. There is poetry that builds a fire inside you and it burns with a heat the demands your attention. Makes you want to grab people, shake them awake, screaming, “This! This!” while jabbing at the words that are articulating what you never even knew you felt, you believed in.

The first poem I read by Jamaal May was “There are Birds Here”, found in an issue of Poets and Writers. I’ve harbored a fascination with Detroit that most likely stems from my grandmother being born in Michigan and my love of derelict buildings. But lately it’s the locals who have grabbed my attention, those who called it home and never left. Those who take care of their families, their neighbors, regardless of what the media says about their communities, what outsiders believe they know.

“There are Birds Here” tore me open. I must have read it a dozen or more time when I first discovered it. Over and over, hungry for it in pieces, in it’s entirety. It begins with a series of refusals to the darkness outsiders first perceive and ends with a song of light and shadow that illuminates the world. You can read it here.

Jamaal May has two bodies of work in publication; Hum and The Big Book of Exit Strategies. But how do you even begin to review them? There is so much here that demands attention; from the simple scene of three men clustered in a cold driveway, examining a nonworking car, to Jamaal pushing past marine recruiters in school hallways, hoping others will choose words over war. His poetry doesn’t just show you a point of view, it gives you his literal vision, distorted by earlier struggles, it gives you his wants and needs, his pain and his past. What his hands feel, what his heart perceives.

The way he uses the English language is masterful, he found a home between eloquence and straight-forward speech that gives you images in crystal clarity. He sings of a city both ruined and whole, he tells you of loves and lovers, of fists and shattered glass and spilled wine. To speak of his poetry I feel I should use poetry, that his eloquence should beget mine. But in it’s own way it reduces me down to pure emotion, so that I am left breathless and broken at the end of “Man Matching Description”. I am in tears half way through “Pomegranate Means Grenade” and surrounded by ghosts of dead friends when I look up from “Yes, I Know She’s Dying”.

Jamaal May’s poetry reminded me of the wounds beneath the scars time has given us. That beneath the tiniest motivation there dwells a myriad of emotions, of history. Not all of it directly ours, but nonetheless we are connected. There are lessons to be learned here, for he speaks of moments as though they are entire worlds. Gazing into them with insight and wisdom that is almost painfully human, but also spectacularly so.

Final Conclusion: Read them. Read them all. Go out and buy his books so that he can keep writing. Share his works with friends, read them out loud in groups and classes. Sleep with them by your bed so when you wake at two in the morning and the walls are closing in you can pick them up and read them by the glow of the streetlights and remember to breathe.

If you’d like to read some of his work, you can find it here on his official site. And you can buy his books from the Book Depository here.

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