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Jamaal May

Jamaal May

The neighborhood is not a war zone.

by Keith Taylor

From the November, 2015 issue

For much of the last century, Detroit has been fertile ground for poetry, which has grown out of the industries, the struggles, the tragedies, and the resilience of the city. None has been more successful on the national poetry scene than Jamaal May.

May's first book, Hum, beautifully published by Alice James Books in 2013, won several prizes. A hum can be a quiet song, but it is also the background noise of a city or a machine. Hum is an intricately organized book, centering on the words for certain fears and weaving those words in and out of various contexts. May is able to use his organizing principle to write love poems, humorous poems, deeply felt poems of loss, pictures of his city, and poems written in complicated traditional forms.

"The Hum of Zug Island," for instance, refers to that phenomenon known as "the Windsor Hum," which people across the Detroit River hear coming from the industrial island on the American side. Near the end of May's collection, written in the form of a sestina (a strict pattern of repeated words), it repeats themes and ideas present throughout the book, yet it is able to capture its own ominous sense of place:

In Windsor they blame it on machines

across the Detroit River. Residents can't ignore

the low frequency hum taking the shape of a sea-

serpent on the oscilloscopes. Beyond gray snow,

plastic bags, and crushed hypodermic needles,

Zug Island is humming--waiting
May has since been published widely in the literary press. One of his poems, "There Are Birds Here," first appeared in Poetry, the oldest and most prestigious of poetry journals, and won several prizes. Dedicated to Detroit, the poem is a response to the "ruin porn" that has come to represent the city so often in years past. May writes about a boy in the city,
and no his smile isn't much

like a skeleton at all. And no

his neighborhood is not like a war zone.

I am trying to say

his neighborhood

is as tattered and feathered

as anything else,

as shadow pierced by sun

and light parted

by shadow-dance as anything else,

but they won't stop saying

how lovely the ruins,

how ruined the lovely

children must be in that birdless city.
Jamaal May's next book, The Big Book of Exit Strategies, is due in April.He reads from both books at UMMA on November 19.     (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2015.]


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