Prose Feature: Keeping Place Whole: A Review of Jamaal May’s HUM (Alice James Books, 2013), by Kristin George Bagdanov

March 4, 2016

I have a friend who has a condition called tinnitus—a constant ringing in the ears. Everything he hears is tinged with hum, like the buzz of a refrigerator you just learn to live with. Sometimes I wonder which he fears more—that the humming will never stop, or how quiet his life would be without it.

Jamaal May understands these twinned halves of fear and longing. We long for change, but also fear that change. His debut collection, Hum, winner of the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award, explores what a life full of conflicting frequencies—some abusive, a few redemptive—sounds like. Similar to how cartographer Denis Wood creates a narrative atlas by mapping his family’s neighborhood in his book Everything Sings, May uses sound and silence to map his own urban spaces in Detroit, the place in which many of these poems are grounded. From the hum of a mother’s sewing machine or a “thrush vibrating with birdsong,” to the buzzing of a hive disrupted by a cell phone’s frequency, May convinces the reader that, truly, everything sings.

The absence or presence of a mechanical hum indicates the health of a city whose economy is dependent upon the industry of machines. In “A Detroit Hum Ending with Bones,” May explores how sound defines and fills a place and a person, how our bodies seek to make patterns amidst even the most intrusive and jarring sounds: “Sometimes / just knowing a pattern is plenty.” In this poem, silence signals distress rather than peace, in both urban and wild spaces. For example, the speaker has “stopped even listening for bees,” because their hives have been displaced in a city more attuned to a mechanical buzz than a insectile one. He confesses: “I know my cell phone near a hive / can confuse insect signals…make a drone go haywire / and spiral into the grass,” demonstrating how the intersection of “natural technology” and human technology can create chaos for a species that doesn’t have control over its habitat. After this realization, he asks, “Is that enough?”–the “that” here an ambiguous referent. Is the sensation of the “rattle from the cabinet,” the feeling of an old refrigerator “working for its hum,” or altering the state of a hive enough? In asking this question, the speaker turns to address the audience and his own self, which he experiences as a series of memories tinged by fear and longing.

This distance between the present speaking self and the past self facilitates this turning inward, which then positions the speaker’s body as the site upon which these memories clash and interact. Amidst this intersection of sacred and mundane, natural and mechanical, is the search for a pattern. The lines: “There’s always a hymn / waiting for ears. A Tibetan singing bowl / looking for an audience” precede the memory of a store clerk who was “definitely afraid of you, / the tremble of his hand made your change clink / out the notes of a small tune / made of fear, just for you.” Sound as the residue of fear, sound as an invitation to the sacred—how can these seemingly disparate effects coalesce into sense? To find the answer, the poem reaches further into the recesses of memory as the speaker addresses himself as a child:

          Do you remember the key
of the plastic kazoos in choir?
Do you remember elementary science?
We were were taught to read an entire sentence
before trying to fill its blanks
and began to say umm
as a placeholder for answers

The sonic bridge between “hum” and “hymn” in this poem shifts Hum from a collection about a place to an investigation of what makes that place. It questions whether that placeholder of sound is waiting for something better to fill it, or if it is actually a placeholder. The various sounds and hums in this poem chart the speaker’s experience of being a body in Detroit while asking if this placeholder can be answer enough: the umm holding its own place in the poem, and the poem holding its place in Detroit.

May has arranged the collection in such a way that its individual poems blur and blend into each other via the echoes of images and words, with a constant slippage between an object’s visual properties and its sonic ones. In doing so, the reader senses the patterning within the book as a whole, as images accrete meaning and significance each time they reappear in a poem. Such repetition creates a history—layers of sediment composed of sound and image that in turn compose the speaker’s self and the place that has built him. For example, “Aichmophobia: Fear of Needles” engages the image of a mother’s sewing machine, which has appeared in several poems previously in the collection (“Mother’s needle- / skilled fingers had already learned to ignore / pain”). This poem reframes this image by focusing on the needle: “Understand, uncle, I learned the plunger / of a hypodermic needle fit neatly in the hands / of action figures before the first time / I had my blood drawn.” This transformation reveals May’s ability to complicate each word and sound by showing its potential to both harm and mend, often at the same time, depending on whose ears are listening or whose hand is guiding the needle. The repetition of such images does not follow an upward slope of progress—i.e. the needle’s final appearance in the collection doesn’t indicate it is ultimately “good” or “bad” in and of itself. Rather, the trajectory of these images is recursive: just as sound travels in waves, objects in these poems rebound and recycle depending upon their relationship to the subject who is sometimes in control and at other times being controlled.

The next poem in the collection, “I Do Have a Seam,” again picks up the image of the needle as that which mends and punctures, but in the context of a lover and his beloved. On the page, this poem is set in two columns with alternatively spaced lines—as if the poem used to be whole before being pulled apart. While at first glance this form might seem like it is simply an attempt to concretely represent the seam in the title, a single word in the center complicates this mimesis; this word is an excess that simultaneously stitches together and holds separate these two halves. The distance created by the rending of this once “whole” poem is what has conjured this excess, what has named this new place. Without distance, there is no desire. Without desire, there is no poem, no address to the beloved:

      . . . Woman,
                                                within reach, woman
with plump thumbs,
                                                with slender fingers—
woman I’d fail for—
                                                hello, you

These halves are momentarily united when the speaker not only addresses the beloved, but physically locates her as being “here.” The power of this address brings that which is distant—the absent lover—and draws her near by materially locating her at the center of the poem. This apostrophe thus connects voice and place, sound and image. May’s poetics is one that still holds a place for the poet who creates just by speaking, though he tempers this romantic notion by constantly reminding us that this act of creation is both destructive and generative. It’s tempting to read this love poem as a beautiful expression of yearning for wholeness in the other: “do you know how / and why I’ve always wanted / to be thread, spooled through / the sewing machine of your hands.” However, the title, the form, and the speaker (“stitch my selvage as it frays, / you know how ragged I’ve been”) remind us of the residual scar—the seam that serves as an ever-present reminder of the hole that it’s attempting to mend.

The repeated image of the needle invites the reader to investigate how such objects, and the places and people they represent, become patterns that bind together that which frays. This collection asks: What can be salvaged from a city or a person that has been punctured, dragged, forgotten? A needle can mend a wound or open a vein. A needle can also translate the grooves of a record into song; needles can bring “light through drawn blinds” and “wind through a window’s failing”; “old factories needle / into the sky” (“The Hum of Zug Island”). Through this repetition, the needle, and the history it has accumulated, is united with the “hum” of machines, bodies, insects—even this book of poems. Image and sound are united, but this does not imply that these twinned halves make a whole. Rather, they continue to negotiate absence and presence, distance and nearness, place and person, silence and voice. They continue to “Ask What I’ve Been”—the title of the collection’s final poem. The answer is an excess: a placeholder that will hold its own place even as it yearns to exceed it. In the words of the collection’s final couplet: “there is space here for bones— / a ribcage, brimming like yours.”

—Kristin George Bagdanov

Kristin George Bagdanov

Kristin George Bagdanov is a PhD student in literature at UC Davis. She recently earned her MFA in poetry at Colorado State University, where she was a Lilly Graduate Fellow. Her poems have recently appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Berkeley Poetry Review, Juked, 32 Poems, and other journals. She is the poetry editor of Ruminate Magazine. Visit her at

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