Jamaal May. Hum. Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2013. 74pp. $15.95, paper.
Jamaal May’s self-reflexive debut, Hum, is musically understated, performative yet private, a spiritual voice in dialogue with a post-industrial landscape. “Dedicated to the interior lives of Detroiters and the memory of David Blair,” the book takes its formal structure from the combination of that landscape with the speaker’s anxieties, which range from the mundane to the mortal. But ultimately, the book invests the word “hum” with a particular sense of the human, a spiritual music that finds its way up from between May’s words and defies straightforward analysis.
The book opens with a poem entitled “Still Life,” an anaphoric series of images of a boy costuming himself and playing imaginatively with urban detritus ranging from barbed wire and bent nails to a bath-towel cape. The end of the poem takes an inward turn with the lines, “Boy with a boy / in his head kept quiet / by humming a lullaby / of static and burble.” The first of many references to “humming” throughout the text, one might read these lines as a self-portrait or analogue of the author as a young man and a description of Hum’s nascent project. But only a few lines after this framing of the poetic text as personal solace, that project is placed in jeopardy. May writes of rust as a metaphorical thief the boy “doesn’t see / but knows / is coming tomorrow / to swallow his song.” This tension between the transformative potential of creativity and the consumptive action of time seems central to Hum, underlying the anxieties that structure the text.
May’s marriage of interior life to external form is unusually intricate, particularly for a poet’s first book. Many poets have used the sestina, a traditional Italian form in which lines end with particular words that repeat according to a mathematical pattern, to explore themes of obsession or anxiety. The second and second-to-last poems in Hum are sestinas that share a single set of end-words: “machine,” “ignore,” “sea,” “snow,” “needle,” and “waiting.” Six other poems in the body of the manuscript take their titles from phobias associated with those end-words. Such ambitious projects often come at the expense of attention to individual poems, but the eight poems of Hum’s spine each feel as carefully conceived as the overarching structure itself. “The Hum of Zug Island,” the book’s second sestina and penultimate poem, even earned May a Pushcart Prize. However, the function of these formal devices is not simply to impress; they build the themes of obsession and anxiety into the structure of the text itself.
Though subjects such as “snow” and “waiting” may seem rather mundane foci for phobias, in May’s poems these subjects become pathways through anxiety into trauma, raising questions that resound long after the poems end. “Chionophobia: Fear of Snow” is a second-person elegy in which we know the deceased protagonist only as “you.” In the poem, the windblown ash and sand of a combat zone recall the snow in which “you” and “your brother” played as children:
Can two snowflakes be the same
on a ghost-white street where enough gather
to construct faceless snowmen? In this desert,
sand blinds the way snow did back home.
Your brother patches holes
in men with names he can’t or won’t learn,
and wonders if, somehow, you are still here,
using an earthmover to pour sand
These lines highlight the particularity of the minute and familiar—snowflakes, grains of sand—while also pointing out the anonymity of bodies in war. How can snowflakes be unique when survival seems to depend on blinding ourselves to the individuality of the suffering and dead? Images of “your brother” and “you” patching and filling holes may gesture toward healing and peace, but the comfort they provide restores neither the identities of the soldiers nor the landscape.
The poem continues, weaving meditatively between images of past and present, sand and snow, before arriving at the apparent source of the protagonist’s fear. When a fruit stand appears to shiver in the desert heat, “your brother” recalls how his family heard the news of “your” death:
Your brother shivers
remembering your mother’s shiver,
the way she sank to the ground, heavy
with news, and your body comes home again.
Your bone-colored casket repeats
its descent, sinks under the flag, and a thud
resounds. Fades. He still hears it.
In these lines the poem’s dichotomous elements blur together, resolving momentarily into a scene where sand and snow, innocence and mortality, the living and the dead all coexist paradoxically. The leaping progression of images through which we arrive at this transcendent moment not only makes rhythmic and resonant connections between disparate settings, it also reflects the fact that post-traumatic stress is often triggered by seemingly innocuous experiences.
Such associative leaps are common in May’s work, but they seem particularly suited to describing the dissociation experienced by this poem’s speaker. In the final lines of “Chionophobia: Fear of Snow,” May capitalizes on this dissociation as well as the second-person mode of address to enact the protagonist’s identity crisis on the reader: “Deafening like footfalls / against the icy driveway, resonant / like your mother’s voice, calling / the wrong name—your name—again.” The ambiguity of identity in these lines shifts attention from the protagonist’s grief over the trauma of his brother’s death to the realization of his own mortality. And this artful closing completes the poem’s journey from a phobia’s innocuous trigger through personal trauma to the temporal source of so many obsessive anxieties.
While this review has focused on how the poems that act as Hum’s most explicit structural elements explore the speakers’ anxieties about time and mortality, the other eighty percent of the text also deserves critical attention. The images and themes introduced in the sestinas and phobia poems recur throughout the book, adding to the impression of anxiety while re-contextualizing key words and images in surprising ways. As mentioned above, Hum is intimately concerned with Detroit’s post-industrial landscape and legacy, and several of the poems explore relationships between humans and machines in terms that are both spiritual and bleakly realistic. In “Hum for the Machine God,” a title which plays on the word “hymn” as well as other meanings of “hum,” a boy prays for his abusive father to be injured but feels remorse when his prayer is granted more brutally than anticipated. In “On Metal” a handful of lay mechanics huddle around a broken down car as the speaker realizes that the human body and the tradition of mechanical repair—both of which he reveres with a nearly religious sense of mystery—are rapidly being rendered obsolete by computerization. And in “Hum of the Machinist’s Lover,” a machinist serenades an automaton he’s created, but whom his breathing corrodes. In these poems, the speakers’ anxieties about mortality intertwine with spiritual tradition and technological innovation to render a portrait of the human condition during a distinctly postmodern moment.
May intricately weaves together these themes and others to create a wide-ranging and surprisingly coherent debut. But what makes Hum remarkable, perhaps more than its structural sophistication or thematic content, is the intimacy and authenticity May’s voice conveys as he thinks and feels his way through each line and stanza. In “Thalassophobia: Fear of the Sea,” a poem addressed to the Detroit poet David Blair who drowned tragically at a young age, May writes:
. . . You know
I get like this sometimes—I listen
for footsteps that will never come,
remember waves I’ve never seen,
watch them fold and break and slowly
whet stones that jut up from coastlines,
and today I learn something old
about the sea . . .
In these lines May makes himself vulnerable by sharing his creative process—a process of discovery in which imagination blends with memory and sensual perception—with someone he loves. And while not all of the poems in the book exhibit that process as explicitly as “Thalassophobia,” an impression of May’s vulnerability suffuses his poetry. Formal sophistication and conceptual implication may make Hum a significant work of literature, but it is May’s human touch that fills these poems with the irreducible combination of feeling and music.