Skip to content

What We’re Reading: Hum

2014 August 21

What We're Reading

HUM coverHum by Jamaal May (Alice James Books, 2013)

For the last three years I’ve written a What We’re Reading post once a month for Hazel & Wren. I’ve become a better critic in that time, but I’ve always tried to treat each book fairly and objectively, to the best of my abilities. However, reading is a hugely subjective activity and in my reviews I hope to communicate why I, personally, like or dislike a book. I attempt to take each book on its own terms and explore how the author succeeds or doesn’t.

All of that being said, I don’t read in a vacuum, and I know that my opinions of a work can be and have been colored by the opinions and actions of those around me, and the world at large; I can’t change that fact. This month, I finished reading Jamaal May’s excellent Hum (Alice James Books, 2013) on Saturday, August 9th, and then checked Twitter, where I saw news of the shooting of Michael Brown. Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white police officer, and that evening protests roiled the suburb of St. Louis. I began to reread May’s poems, but now with a steady stream of disturbing news from Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere changing the way I experienced these poems.

May’s work touches on issues of race, class, and injustice, specifically in Detroit, but paralleling similar issues in other parts of the country, including Ferguson. “If I say riot helmets outnumbered the protesters” begins “The Sky, Now Black with Birds” and images of a militarized police force materialized in my mind and on my phone’s screen. In another poem, May describes a time he matched the description of a crime suspect, as Michael Brown allegedly did:

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[…]

The poem ends, hauntingly,

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

screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.

May’s skill is in directing the reader’s attention, often just away from the main action. He doesn’t ask us to look at the force used to pin him to a vehicle, he asks us to “marvel” at juxtaposed materials: the soft silk, skin, and feathers against the metal of handcuffs, gun, baton, vehicle.

By directing the reader’s attention to details or just to the side, a poem’s main subject is thrown into sharp relief. May’s images and metaphors stay fresh long after the poem has ended, often becoming more complex upon subsequent readings. In this way, May is able to make his lived experience political. The poem “Pomegranate Means Grenade” is addressed to 11-year-old Jontae, who is quoted as an epigram to the poem.

There will always be at least one like you:

a child who gets the picked-over box

with mostly black crayons. One who wonders

what beautiful has to do with beauty as he darkens

a sun in the corner of every page,

constructs a house from ashen lines,

sketches stick figures lying face down—

May implies that Jontae’s whole life has been picked over like the box of crayons, before the drawing has even begun, but ends with a glimmer of rage-filled hope:

You stand nameless in front of a tank against

those who would rather see you pull a pin

from a grenade than pull a pen

from your backpack. Jontae,

they are afraid.

Typically, I shy away from calling a poem autobiographical. We are taught, in writing workshops and literature classes, to separate the persona in the poem from the poet who wrote it. Confessional poetry and the use of poetry as therapy has muddied the waters when it comes to what is true and what is fabricated in art. May, however, is explicit in his poems. People thanked in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book are mentioned by name in the poems. One of the more beautiful moments of this tactic comes at the end of “On Gentleness” which reads:

Tell me about the night I hurled a phone receiver

at your head and the orb of blood on your lip

seemed like it’d never fall, how you


bound me by a wrist, bruised my ribs against the floor,

and never threw a single punch. Wasn’t that

a kind of gentleness, Jabari?

Until Jabari’s name is invoked as the last word in this thirty-line piece, the reader never quite certain the I in the poem is the poet. “Didn’t a poet say cracks are how light gets in everything? / I’m probably mixing that up” May writes in “Thinking Like a Split Melon” and seems to be talking about cracking poetry to let in reality, or vise versa.

But this is how I think. Give me a box,

and I’ll fill it with dirt

or fill it with water

or fill it with both


and trouble that mire

with whatever stick I happen to find.

It’s comforting to me, as a critic, that May is willing to blur the line between his poet self and his persona, especially as the reality of the continuing events in Ferguson bled into my reading of his poems. Cracks let the light in, and May’s poems are filled with plenty of light. It’s bright, and it can be blinding, but his gentle hands help us look just away from the light, at the orb of blood, ripe, but not yet fallen. In this way, the reader is able to see more clearly the violence of living.

I hesitate to make an argument that poetry can save or even change the world. In many ways poetry saved my own (very) small world, but poems are fragile things and few of them stand up to the test of time or the burdens of politics. Nazim Hikmet was jailed and exiled simply because soldiers were reading his poems; Seamus Heaney was a steady voice of reason during the Troubles in Ireland. But many political poems are shrill, flat, or dated. The trick—and May knows this as well as Hikmet and Heaney did—is to focus on humanity, not politics. I hesitate to say that Poetry can Save The World—but it can help ease the pain of living.

So I want to know what poets ease your pain. What poets do you turn to when the news of the world is too much? What poets offer comfort when it’s needed? What poems do you keep in your wallet or on your desk or your bedside table?

Or, if you prefer to take it on: can Poetry Save The World?


Comments are closed.