Jamaal May’s second collection of poetry, The Big Book of Exit Strategies, continues the bighearted, artful, dialogue with his phobias and his hopes begun in his first collection, Hum. Once again, Detroit ghosts through his lines, as May’s poems reconnoiter the culture of violence that circumscribes American life and U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. While May’s debut collection writhed to life through the motif of the mechanistic purr, the hum of the god-engine in his second book takes the form of fire and ruin. Amidst images of burning and breaking things, May’s poems turn inward, charting his own way of being in a hostile world, in order to extend outward as an embrace. Despite the hostility he probes, in open-mouthed requiem, May commits himself to the hard work of healing psychic ruptures and toppling crumbled walls. In the poem, “The Tendencies of Walls,” May notes: “My nostalgia is a pyromaniac/ I follow into a condemned barn.” Here, as everywhere in this book, May seeks egress from the paralyzing fears that come from living in a nation so schizophrenically privileged and impoverished, so beaconed and so broken, so hell-bent on following the way of the gun even as it anthems itself in hymns.
Throughout The Big Book of Exit Strategies, May resists the urge to draw easy parallels between injustices emblematized by a city like Detroit and repressions occurring overseas; in fact, a poem such as “There are Birds Here,” emphasizes the corrosive danger of emblematizing injustice, and the difficulty of transcending cliché:
The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make out of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
his neighborhood is not like
a war zone.
The stutter-step negations in these lines accrue into an aural subtext where confetti and cotton, skeleton and smiling boy, neighborhood and warzone, tank and building, bread and bird and girl, resolve themselves into taut uneasy correspondences. These correspondences ultimately buckle and splinter like “the grown man growing out/ of a splintering boy’s body.” Splintered words yearn for a wholeness of utterance uniquely restored through poetry.
The overriding impulse in all of Jamaal May’s work is the restorative utterance. For all of the shards and the shrapnel embedded in his poems, May primarily admires uplift, albeit with a jagged edge. The end of the poem, “Conducting Ivy with the Girl Down the Street,” provides a characteristic example of the poet’s affinities:
into a broken
but she covers my mouth
kisses the back of her hand
that just keeps rising out of us.
The belief in unremitting green springing from a child’s gesture of acceptance might be the only rejoinder to exit wound and torn cartilage. May chooses avowal over despair, the shape of the mouth kissing over a cupped formlessness. The formal range of the poems in The Big Book of Exit Strategies is impressive; May leaps seamlessly from elegy to ode, from the interview in “FBI Questioning During the 2009 Presidential Inauguration” to a partial crown of sonnets in “The Whetting of Teeth.” More impressive, however, is May’s fidelity to the simple truth that: “what matters most/ is not where I bend/ but where I am growing.” What matters most is not the grackle falling through smoke, not the house built from the skinny letters of your own name, not the “fire to stoke like rage and fill the sky with human remains.” Reading Jamaal May’s poetry you might find a map out of yourself, into the pistol-full avenues where love poems compose themselves on the precarious cliffs of the loveliest collarbones.
Dante Di Stefano's collection of poetry, Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight, is forthcoming from Brighthorse Books. His poetry and essays have appeared in The Writer's Chronicle, Obsidian, Shenandoah, Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, and elsewhere.