-Book Reviewed by Kendra Bartell

Jamaal May’s Hum is a stunning debut collection of poetry, alive and full of incredibly rich lyricism. May, the founder of Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press, makes his mark. He is a poet to be reckoned with in terms of his command of the page, rhythm, and image. He announces himself as a voice of Detroit, a poet of the page and ear at the same time. His raw emotional honesty enables him to see the world with a searing eye.

Hum is organized around six major “fears.” These daunted narratives are formatted on a darker background with white text, breaking the book into seven sections. One of the most striking features of the collection is that these fears (being ignored, snow, needles, machines, the sea, waiting) become the six end-words of not one, but two sestinas that bookend the collection. “Hum of the Machine God” is the second poem, in which we see an echo of Frost’s “Out, Out—.” But here, the father, a hardened authority figure, loses a thumb to a snow blower and the boy, who witnesses the accident, prays that his earlier wishes will be forgotten:

                 The boy listened for the sea.
                  Gripped his shovel. Gripped his oar. Now, in a waiting
                  room, he bows to the florescent hum and begs. Ignore
                  my prayer, goes his stupid little prayer, please ignore
                  my voice.

This poem’s emotional honesty and incredible insight into the powers and fears that exist in all of us is penetrating. Who hasn’t wished ill will upon someone in a moment of weakness, and then tried to retract the hurtful statement? In May’s poem, the precise and close viewpoint into this charged familial scene hits all too close to home for readers.

In the second to last poem of the collection, these same six end words reappear: “The Hum of Zug Island” reworks the words into another equally moving poem, although, by this point in the collection, the speaker has adopted a more distant, observant point of view. The narrator wields a universal voice and is able to speak for the entire Motor City, not only the young boy pictured earlier in the collection. Here, we see the prayers of Detroit citizens being threatened by those same things that have shaped the metropolis, the prayers for change that might not ever come:

                  You can hear it, a machine
                  that doesnt know its dead sending a sea
                  of pulses across shore because its tired of waiting
                  for someone to talk to, tired of being ignored.

Throughout the collection, the speaker gradually emerges from a personal space, to become engaged with politics and comment on a world spiraling out of control. May’s personable tone fuses idealism with reproach for the failures of government, illuminating many fears that readers will share. These are private fears that lurk and irritate the core of our existence. Fear of racial profiling and the war on terror; fear of the death penalty, of Tiananmen Square, and of the rapid takeover of technology. May’s intoxicating language and rhythmic control pump adrenaline and breathe composure, helping audiences confront their demons. In “Pomegranate Means Grenade,” one of the most impressive poems in the book, we hear this rhythm carry us through the lines that challenge our conceptions of war as something far away:

                  Hold a pomegranate in your palm.
                  Imagine ways to split it. Think of the breaking
                  skin as shrapnel. Remember granada
                  means pomegranate and granada
                  means grenade because grenade
                  takes its name from the fruit;
                  identify war by what it takes away
                  from fecund orchards.

May swiftly enumerates the consequences of war through evolving definitions that utilize powerful syntax at a rolling pace. “Pomegranate Means Grenade” maintains relentless momentum, driving readers to the conclusion that there are “those who would rather see you pull a pin/from a grenade than pull a pen/from your backpack.” Therein lies the power of poetry to mark a landscape with craters. May isn’t interested in playing mind-games that achieve a self-aggrandizing show of intelligence. His aim is to wield words that will reverberate in the political consciousness. Through his plainspoken but carefully crafted lines, May shows his true gift for personalizing current events and digesting their crucial meanings.

The collection is full of heart-wrenching poems. May exhibits an incredible ear for language and syntax while demonstrating expert control of page and auditory aesthetics. His voice demands reading aloud. Thoughtful double meanings punctuate his verses and May proves that there shouldn’t have to be a distinction between performance and written poetry, a divide all-too emphasized in the current poetic culture. Hum is a remarkable debut volume. Let’s hope Jamaal May’s follow-up shakes us up all over again.


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