Review By: Bess Cooley, Managing Editor
Birds searching for bread. A fist fight. Fences. Lampposts. All these in the first two poems, immediately setting up Jamaal May’s second poetry collection, The Big Book of Exit Strategies. This is an urban book, a book of city landscapes—particularly Detroit, the author’s hometown. The second poem in this collection, “There Are Birds Here,” immediately subverts expectations of what Detroit will look like in this book. After May writes that bread is torn for the birds “like confetti,” he clarifies:
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…
May debunks the assumption that people can’t be happy in this city. And the rest of the book, too, is a love poem, an address, an ode. Though May writes of shootings, of war, it’s a book of joy that simultaneously calls for a re-seeing of his city. Detroit so often brings to mind harsh poverty, decrepit houses, bankruptcy, a city in desperate need. And May doesn’t necessarily deny that—it would be impossible to. He looks at the beauty in his city as much as the tragedy.
When he does write of guns and murders, the images are superb and somehow beautiful. From “The Gun Joke”: “This is definitely not a joke, / and then his laughter cracked through me / like electrostatic—funny how that works.” Then in the following poem, “Hoplophobia”: “I can’t help but remember / how a pocket knife once whispered open / and snarled at my mother’s belly.” Those words fire, better than the guns May writes of. Look, he’s saying, this is terribly beautiful. But these poems don’t make me want to sit in my chair and read them and be sad. They make me want to go to Detroit and Ferguson and everywhere in the country and do something. I want to tear down barriers and yell in the streets. May, it seems, wants to, too. This is real poetry. Poetry that engages, demands, poetry that says, Look at my beautiful city. Honor it. Take joy in it. Do something for it. All over these pages, May seems to feel some sense of duty, some obligation to Detroit and to America. He makes anyone reading the book feel it, too, along with joy. It’s no small feat, but it’s entirely necessary here.
I tried to list my favorite poems from The Big Book of Exit Strategies, got to ten, and had to stop. I dog-eared so many of these pages. Because May says everything so well, I’ll end with his ending, his last poem. To start it, he goes back to cutting onions, from a previous poem, which speaks to some pattern he seems to be trying to work out in this book, anything that recurs and recurs. He makes fun of himself for thinking this way: “It was ridiculous of me to think / anyone would see this / as a metaphor…” Then Jamaal May does what Jamaal May does: he lets it be.
The sizzling skillet, round and full
of what I’ve cried over to cut
is not a metaphor for anything.
It is only delicious,
as all leaving things are.
100 pages, $16.95