Writing about what I have been reading and encountering in the media.
|I have just finished, for the second time, reading Hum (2013) Jamal May, Alice James Books, Boston. Preparing to review it here, I very nearly started all over again. It is obvious to me why this volume won the Beatrice Hawsley Award: “The Beatrice Hawley Award is given annually by Alice James Books, affiliated with the University of Maine, Farmington. "The award includes publication of a book-length poetry manuscript and a cash prize.
The award was established by the press in 1986 to honor cooperative member author Beatrice Hawley (Making the House Fall Down, 1977) who died in 1985 at forty-one years of age from lung cancer. The Award is a nationally-offered publication prize open to poets at any stage of their careers.”
Hum also won the 2014 American Library Association Notable Book Award for Adult Books; poetry. The 2013 winner was Sharon Olds. The comment describing the book in the posting reads: “Detroit cityscapes resonate with the pulse of machinery and silence.”
To me, this wonderful poetry is an elegy to the end of the Industrial Revolution and a tour of its graveyard, the city of Detroit. Even when he isn’t talking about machines, the writing carries respect, grief and hope. One example is:
“The Girl Who Builds Rockets from Bricks
Finds no voice louder
than hers in the caverns
of deserted houses
or overgrown lots that surround
her excavation for spare parts:
Shards of whiskey bottle, matches,
ant hills erupting from concrete
seams, the discarded husk
of a beetle. The shells of vacants
reflect the echoes of her little
song—a song with lyrics
assembled in a quiet language
only she speaks—language
not spoken with tongue but hands
that snatch up fists of grass,
crunch into dust the driest leaves—
small hands that fill jelly jars
with broken glass, gravel, and fire ants,
each jar an engine for a rocket.
Rain water spills from a gas can
Down between bricks, the girl
begins her countdown
without thinking of destination.”
The next poem in the book, “Mechanophobia; fear of machines,” begins:
There is no work left for a husk.
Automated welder like us,
your line replacements, can’t expect
sympathy after our once bright
arms of cable rust over. So come
collect us for scrap, grind us up
in the mouth of one of us.
Let your hand pry at the access
panel with the edge of a knife
silencing the motor and thrum….”
Perhaps the appeal of this book for me is in my memory of Pittsburgh growing up and seeing it now with the mills gone. Perhaps the sounds of his words play in my head in the voices of my grandfathers, uncles, father and brothers. I do know that at times, as I read, I hear Jamal May’s voice as the voice of the refugee migrants leaving Syria after their homes and communities have been destroyed in the 5 year war between the old way and the push for change, between the spiritual and the visceral, the explosion and the exploded. This is the hum I hear in the background. The sound could just as easily be that of acid rock, or techno, but a hum is what you get when enough people are talking at once and you enter the room. Some would call it clamor, but, when Jamal May enters, the sound sort of sifts down into patterns resembling speech and those patterns are interpreted beautifully for us. How we could be so lucky, when all we seem to do is hum, I really don’t know. I am truly grateful for this timely work of art.
I highly recommend that you follow this link and hear Jamal May read a couple of his poems at: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/245630
I read hum on Kindle, but it is available also in print and is well worth the purchase. You might also be able to borrow a virtual copy through your local library. Videos of Jamal May reciting his poetry are available on YouTube.