Unquiet Things by James Davis May
Louisiana State University Press, 2016; 94 pp
REviewed by Michael Levan
Do not confuse James Davis May’s Unquiet Things with poetry collections that attempt to enthrall readers via superficial confessions. His work reaches places deeper than that; these poems achieve an intimacy between writer and reader that turns into friendship, if not kinship.
The intensely personal—the jealousy/curiosity that overtakes the speaker as he cleans the ex’s dried vomit off a wall in “To My Lover’s Ex-Husband” or the poems in the later pages which detail his wife’s difficult pregnancy (“The Causes of Saints”) or their daughter’s potential health crisis (“Reverberations”)—is close to the center of these poems, but that’s not what is at the heart of them. Some poets would be perfectly happy to keep a speaker consistently resentful of a partner’s past love or angry at how the gift that love has created might be taken away from him, but May complicates the complications, enriching these moments and preventing them from becoming one-note.
May’s speakers question until the larger understanding is revealed and then brought back to the moment that generated the poem. In “At the Artists’ Colony,” the speaker watches two shadows perform a sexually provocative piece, but he’s not titillated, nor does he feel personally affronted by the show. Instead:
You’re upset because you don’t get it
Upset because it makes you uncomfortable
to not get it. Maybe that’s the point:
to feel uncomfortable, to feel
as though your little ordered world
is being laughed at. Derided. Or do you still think
that art is insight? That would explain
your version of humility.
Though it may not be the insight, art is the vehicle by which insight comes, which suggests why May refuses to simplify his poems to their lowest common denominators. Accused of not knowing how to talk dirty during sex in “Reciprocal,” the speaker’s instinct isn’t to react dramatically to the criticism and “stop and leave the room, then the house / viciously dressing while cursing.” He only wants her to know he’ll do whatever he wants to make her happy. Rather than embellish his poems’ circumstances, he works to amplify their truths. He writes not as a far-off voice supremely certain of everything, but as someone who’s willing to struggle in front of a close friend (or reader) as he mines these straightforward narratives for anything that will make the world a less confounding place.
Unquiet Things is not loud, but its poems are meant to disrupt the ordinary, to remind us that small moments add up to something much larger than the life-altering circumstances we fear or look forward to, that we measure our successes and failures by. We’ll be rewarded if we pay close attention to these poems. But if we look away, “the miracle that may happen / [won’t] happen.”