Jamaal May’s debut collection, Hum, both occupies and meditates on a series of intermediary spaces: both contemporary and historical. Imagine John Edward of Crossing Over making connections with machines, or a wayward mystical apostle of McLuhan turning to verse, and you’ll understand in part the book’s tone and project.
Except there may be no mystery at all in the beauty of language – in Hum, language is simple and charged (don’t think “common language”) because May is not afraid of vulnerability, while remaining necessarily wary of both over-sentiment and -artifice. Conversely, language is a machine which hums along dutifully with its share of fits and sputters. Note that sputters here are not missteps, but rather the necessary coughs and recalibrations a machine requires when adapting and dealing with its job, perhaps even its inevitable obsoleteness.
Take for instance the speaker’s desire to become another object, first a bolt of silk or
“…as brutal and impeccable as it’d be to soar
from a crossbow with a whistle and have a man
switch off upon my arrival, it is nothing
compared to that moment when I eat the dark,
draw shadows in quick strokes across wall
(stanza break, continued)
and start a tongue counting
down to thunder. That counting that says,
I am this far. I am this close.”
from “Hum for the Bolt,”
To become a machine, perhaps one allure of language and poetry, in many ways means to contain the power to “have a man // switch off upon my arrival,” a power May is not afraid of admittedly desiring. However, it is ultimately the desire to become a force of nature, both natural yet inhuman, that wins out. All of these – silk, arrow and lightning – are mediums and expressions of both mechanical and natural machines. Yet without saying so with a heavy hand, May shows that language is in fact the ultimate and only machine whose hum can encapsulate this desire, as it is the “counting / down to thunder” that gives the lightning its sense of magnitude.
Meanwhile, there is as much fear in Hum as there is revelry and desire. Six phobia poems are (“Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored,” “Chionophobia: Fear of Snow,” “Thalassophobia: Fear of the Sea,” Aichmophobia: Fear of Needles,” “Mechanophobia: Fear of Machines” and “Macrophobia: Fear of Waiting”) are the lynchpins of the book and are dispersed throughout. To me, these poems represent the failings of the body and mind as a machine, an imperfect mechanism that works within a larger yet ultimately workable system. This system is accentuated by the fact that all six phobia poems are bracketed by two sestinas, both the second and the penultimate poems in the book (“Hum of the Machine God” and “The Hum of Zug Island”), both of which use the feared objects as the repeated terminal words at the end of each line (ignore, snow, sea, needle, machine and waiting). Hum itself is a machine, fueled by both incontrollable fear and the harnessing of it.
Seeing the machine-like quality that is the structure of this book, both on the global and local scales, is what ultimately set me thinking of Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent.” The mere writing of an enjoyable sestina, let alone two that function under the same strictures is impressive. And the idea that fear is both generative and even structural is, to me, the kind of understanding a traditional poet, not a formalist or conservative poet, picks up on and ultimately creates with his work. This approach is what I love most about this important collection. Seen this way, the poem is not a puzzle nor an emotional outpouring, but a machine, capable of upgrade as well as retrofitting, sometimes held together loosely, other times it is bulky and unwieldy, whatever the job requires. May is, in this vein, a loving tinker who has very obviously built a relationship with his contraptions, while also seeing in the world its own dangerous yet beautiful mechanisms. This is not at all Romantic, but somehow still idyllic, as May shows in “Thalassophobia: Fear of the Sea:”
“…and today I learned something old
about the sea. Even the conch is a bit
of a blade, coiling itself around itself,
spiraling to a point, so that all we find
(stanza break, continued)
lovely in its folds forms
the outline of a dagger.”
Zachariah McVicker is a first year MFA candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.