Jamaal May’s Hum, Reviewed by Brenda Mann Hammack
With its impressive pair of sestinas, “Hum of the Machine God” and “The Hum of Zug Island,” Jamaal May’s first collection promises formal virtuosity. (He actually uses the same six end words in both sestinas.) The poet’s technical and intellectual artistry fits his subject matter as he contemplates working class identity in a world where complex technologies and knowledges proliferate. How can a man be a man when his physical dexterity, his manual labors aren’t provided sustainable outlets? How can humanity be maintained in a world that promotes posthumanity? Hum delivers a multiplex perspective where imagination and invention fuse, where urban self becomes pseudo-cyborgian amalgamation.
In “Still Life,” the opening poem, a boy with “roof shingles / duct taped to shins” and “metal grate for a shield” surveys traffic from the window of an abandoned warehouse (2-3, 8). With “safety pin-clasped / bath towel” for “a cape,” the boy might be preparing to launch himself over an overpass like some amateur superhero, or Icarus for a machine age (4-5).
One motivation for that boy’s escapist fantasies is revealed as his father rewards absent-mindedness with a blow that splits the boy’s lip in the first of the aforementioned sestinas. Ambient noise (sewing machine, car engine, “boatbuilding tools”) merge into an ominous “thrum” as a resentful wish seems magically to be fulfilled when the older male’s finger is accidentally severed (17). The boy blames himself for his father’s implied castration. “Ignore / my prayer, [. . .] please ignore / my voice,” he begs the “Machine God” as he waits in the hospital during the attempted reattachment procedure (30-32, 37).
How can the self-silenced establish identity? The boy develops into a young man, acting out with no clear focus for his destructive energies in “Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored.” “[A] stainless steel bar” embedded in his eyebrow, he participates in fights and trysts (7). He sets fires just “to dance like firelight / without setting anyone ablaze” (14-15). He likens himself to
the sculpture of a man with metal skin grafts,
in patterns on mud-draggled wood, feathers
circling leaves in rainwater. (20-23)
He attempts to express selfhood and manhood through physical means, but only “the blade / of a knife” bears his “quickly fading likeness” (23-24).
The sculpture’s body signals an appropriation or absorption of metallic parts in a manner that may recall prosthesis. One might expect the cyborgian figure to result from the deterioration of an organic self. But the natural processes of aging are not responsible for the damages appraised in May’s poetry. His voice is not that of an old man.
As the poem “On Metal” makes clear, emasculation (dare we call it emasculinity?) is prompted by technological industry as ordinary men lose their abilities to bond with one another under car hoods. Their collaborative tinkering in home garages has been diminished since “Detroit’s building ‘em like robots now” (19). But it is only in the last three stanzas that May’s speaker reveals that he does not identify himself so much with the frustrated tinkerers as he does with the object of their failed efforts. He recognizes himself in the malfunctioning car:
[. . . ] I still can’t help thinking of how much the frame
is like my frame. The mystery of my Chrysler’s right side
not responding—silent speaker, head lamp dead, window
sealed shut, frozen power door lock—is no more
mystifying than my left ear’s limited frequency range
or the left eye I’m now told is blind by a doctor
who huddles over me to assess some unknown damage.
Damage that is ongoing. A diminishment I’ll live with. (22-29)
In the following poem in the collection, “Masticated Light,” May reveals that visual deterioration had begun as an eye injury sustained in a fight he (the speaker) instigated:
I don’t want to remember the eyes
that glanced over shoulder just before
I dragged him like a gazelle into the grass
that was a stretch of gravel and glass
outside a liquor store. How easily this becomes that. (35-39)
This revelation signals the poet’s awareness that the reduction of physical powers has been determined by an unquestioning acceptance of expectation, by the enactment of masculine aggression. The speaker attacks merely because the other youth had thrown a bottle, which smashed in the former’s path. Offense may or may not have been intended. Causation is beside the point.
Now, even the speaker’s undamaged right eye suffers from impaired vision, the result of natural causes. Yet, the poet emphasizes the mechanical malfunction on the left (the supposedly “feminine”) side of the body, suggesting recognition of emotional deficit.
Even if his external vision is limited, the speaker’s inner eye flashes back to that time when he did not think about guilt or consequence. And it is an older self that perceives “[h]orns sprout[ing] from the head of [his] silhouette” (46). This shadow-self does not operate as conscience. Instead, May’s projected darkness betrays propensities that his male speaker, now, comprehends as potential monstrosity.
In “The Sky, Now Black with Birds,” the poet acknowledges a reaction to hate crimes (like the dragging death of Lawrence Brewer). Such atrocities provoke rage that can become so intense the “tongue swell[s] fat with hexes” (24). The urge to seek “eye-for-an-eye” justice may be understandable, but May’s persona recognizes that a similar impulse has cost him so much already. He strives to develop a capacity for forgiveness, which he likens to that hope of which Emily Dickinson speaks. “[T]he word has feathers.” May insists, “I want / to learn to get its wings between my teeth” (32-33). He must be able to speak the word “Forgive,” lest he contribute to an apocalyptic urge for “retribution” (30, 34).
One does not suppose that recent incidents of police brutality are likely to have eased this feeling. Although the body does not always mind the mental “commands to sit still,” although the poet addresses the struggle to “ignore / the hum that won’t stay calm,” his poetry does provide some reason to believe that the “oscillating piston of a heart” will continue to thrum (“The Hum of Zug Island” 11, 23). At any rate, unthinking participation in violent activity seems unlikely to result in the cessation of its beating.
However, by the time the reader encounters the second sestina (“The Hum of Zug Island”) near the end of the collection, the boy of the first sestina is no longer attempting to silence his resentment. The expression of pain, both psychological and physical, may allow him to locate or create equanimity. Despite the threat so often sensed in Hum, the poet acknowledges that “[s]ometimes, words quiet the machines, // the hum gets easier to ignore. But pine needles / still fall gold” (36-38). And that, at least, is some small solace, a reason to continue writing and reading.
May, Jamaal. Hum. Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2013. Print.