Hum by Jamaal May
Alice James Books, 2013; 74 pp
Reviewed by Analicia Sotelo

 

Humming doesn’t have lyrics: it’s what happens right before the mind has a chance to catch up with a feeling, right before someone decides whether to speak or to sing. But with Hum, Jamaal May has done something different; he’s given the hum its lyrics, giving voice to a sound that might otherwise be inaudible to the untrained ear. What I mean is that I have never had a clearer picture of what it’s like to see the “interior life” of Detroit, a mechanical landscape that keeps humming.

Though I think anyone reading Hum will be impressed by the 6 fear poems spattered throughout the book—Fear of Being Ignored, Fear of Snow, Fear of Needles, Fear of the Sea, Fear of Machines, and Fear of Waiting—what’s most significant for me is how the book organically reassembles these 6 motifs from the ruins. Hum will make you feel as if you are inside of a machine, as if you are a machine, as if you are making a machine, as if you cannot escape a machine that makes a war of the world every day.

In Hum, modern man is made of wreckage. Violence is the shaky foundation that leads to a poem like “The Sky, Now Black with Birds,” where the speaker is struggling to understand how the word forgive could belong in a conversation about James Byrd, who was beaten, dragged and murdered by three white men in Jasper, TX in 1998:

I want you to watch close enough
to notice the feathers aren’t black at all.
Like bruises and ink, they are
only this full-bodied purple—purple so rich
your eyes will still swear it’s black the next time
you see it spread out across the sky” (10).

In Hum, the speaker’s amazed and prophetic rhetoric gives life to what has been buried for a long time—in political, familial and romantic relationships. But whether he is speaking as a man or as a man looking back on childhood, he insists:

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—
I know how often red is the only color
left to reach for (53).

The beauty of Jamaal May’s Hum is that there is always something left to reach for and to become.