Musica Ex Machinae

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Hum Jamaal May 2013, Alice James Books

Jamaal May
$15.95, Softcover
2013, Alice James Books

An incidental byproduct of machinery, music muttered under the breath, the sound of human voices and the human heart: Hum, the title of Jamaal May’s debut poetry collection, is also the quintessential sound of Detroit, the setting for most of these poems, an appropriate backdrop against which the tensions between machinery and humanity play out, a city as much reviled for its crime, violence, and urban decay as it was once revered for its thriving auto industry and Motown music. It is the sound the speaker’s lover makes in “Hum of the Machinist’s Lover.” “Place your cold pincer/against my fleshy palm,” the speaker entreats chillingly:

In a voice like cotton,
hum us a melody

from the speaker box I
soldered to your belly.

In an age of big data, NSA surveillance, phones that track our whereabouts, and drone strikes that allow national violence to be outsourced entirely to machines, May claims that the surface similarities between people and machines actually reveal their fundamental differences. In “Thinking Like a Split Melon,” he questions the human tendency to make art by ascribing agency to things that can’t speak for themselves:

The bending blades of grass
told me it’s not appropriate
to ascribe words—

which become ideas,
and soon become my ideas—

to them, as they’ve done nothing wrong.

At a certain point the names or classifications we give to things (and even people) whose voices go unheard become unjustified and even unethical, a moral structure that exists in art just as it does in society. We know this, yet it hasn’t stopped people from writing poetry. We are driven to say, I am here, I am human, inscribing ourselves onto the world even as we recognize that it is our humanity that also enables us to cause harm. “Hum of the Machinist’s Lover” ends:

Tell me where it aches. Tell
me where rust encroaches—
I know what oxygen

does to your surface—How
could I not? I am breath
and air and air.

The simple act of breathing—one of the basic functions of animal life—causes machines to rust; similarly, the baseline of our human agency causes lovers to weather damage. To love is to hurt someone, if you get too close you will rust them. Even machines, the poem seems to say, are more than the artifice of their construction as long as humans make them and imbue them with human characteristics, however wrong it is. May illustrates this point in “Hum of the Machine God,” a sestina about a troubled father-son relationship. The son dreams of a boat and a sea that will carry him elsewhere, while the father “hate[s] waiting” and has given up imagining another life; he resents his son for holding out hope. To the boy,

                                                          The snow
under Father’s idling car became a sea,

running into drains towards another sea
the boy hoped and hopes is out there waiting.
Almost heard it one morning, shoveling snow
as a neighbor’s open garage rattled with machinery,
boatbuilding tools, a thrum he knew to ignore.
Father said, Might as well build that boat with needles, 

but the spell held the boy. To watch the needling
of a board through a notch was to see a wooden sea-
dragon and dream of riding it away. Boy, don’t ignore
me. A lip split open. Shovel. Father hated waiting […]

The “Machine God,” the Deus Ex Machina, derives from Greek drama in which a god or goddess was lowered onto the stage from a crane in order to set a situation right—an outside force intervening unexpectedly to solve the unsolvable, In this poem, the father appears to the boy as an all-powerful figure, an Almighty Father with a capital “F,” until a godlike force literally comes out of a machine and saves the boy from his father’s abuse:

Yes, he prayed the snow-
blower would take Father’s hand. Yes, the needle
of Father’s scream, as a thumb was machined
clean off, brought icicles down.

There are strong echoes of Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out—”, in which a boy dies after cutting his hand off with a buzz saw. As in Frost’s poem, the machine takes on a life of its own; both poems partially deny the responsibility of humans in the events that take place. In “Out, Out—”:

His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws know what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting.

Similarly, in “Hum of the Machine God,” it is not the boy’s prayer, nor God, nor even the father himself that is blamed for the accident. Instead, “a thumb was machined clean off.” Set in the passive voice, the action has no subject. However, while Frost’s “boy / Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart” dies at the end of the poem, May’s protagonist is spared, and the man forcing the work upon him is punished.

Many poems in Hum are similar attempts rewrite the broken elements of childhood, to vindicate a boy misunderstood by the world in which he lives, struggling to inhabit the role carved out for him by family and society. The opening poem, “Still Life,” describes a childhood in which many of the experiences are universal—but it is unmistakably a male childhood. Themes of fatherhood, brotherhood, and masculinity recur in these poems, as does an ambivalence about the role a young male in America is expected to play, which all too often involves war, street violence, and family violence. The title “Still Life” at first seems to be an odd moniker for a poem that is so in-motion:

Boy with a safety pin-clasped
bath towel of a cape
tucking exacto knife into sock.

Boy with rocks. Boy
with a metal grate for a shield.

A little boy playing superheroes and throwing rocks seems a strange fixture for a still life painting. However, by its end, the poem becomes quieter, introspective:

Boy with a boy living

in his head kept quiet
by humming a lullaby
of static and burble.

The boy in the boy’s head
watches sparse traffic
from a warehouse window.

This other boy, who exists in the boy’s head, is more like a still life: authentic, natural, but inactive, silent. Here “Still Life” takes on another meaning too. Even amidst the bleak and abandoned cityscape, May asserts, there is still life:

overpass paint hides rust,
where the cyan bubbles up

into a patchwork of pock
and crumbling disease,
a thief in the bridge’s body.

What is truly remarkable in these poems is that every object does so much work; there are no spare parts, no incidental details. Even the rust and the cyan and the bridge crumbling into disrepair take on the life of the poem, separate from the boy’s internal experience. May’s poems are littered with what would be, in another poet’s vision, detritus, the remains of things that used to hum with life. Instead they are objects that bear a multitude of meanings, as in “Looks Like a Boy”:

Down the street from
the wreckage left by last night’s
storm—live wire flicking like a
dare, a tree cracked in half by
lightning—he’s down there,
in the drizzle, keeping warm,
gun cold under a puffy coat
filled with feathers.

The boy is part of this landscape of decay, taunted by live wire, broken like the tree. One might even say that the boy is the damage left over from the storm—a storm of violence and destruction, a world that has failed him. He appears dangerous—“Looks like a full grown man”—but is actually quite vulnerable. The line “he’s down there” describes both his position relative to the narrator and his vulnerability: like his puffy coat, he is made of down, large and menacing on the outside but soft at its core and fragile. The coat, like the boy, can be punctured and explode at any moment, with insides that fly out and scatter, irretrievable.

Through these poems, May invites us into Detroit cityscapes that blend with the interior landscapes of his vivid characters. In the poem “On Metal,” three men stand around a car trying to fix it. Finally “admitting… defeat,” one of them says, “Detroit’s building ’em like robots now. Like the car, the man concedes, Detroit has become unrecognizable, irreparable—and May takes on human unrecognizability in “Masticated Light”: “I try to squint that monster / into the shape of a man.” In actuality, we all want to tame the monster—the monster within and the monster outside—until it looks like something knowable and unthreatening once again.

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About Liza Katz

Liza Katz is a poet, essayist, and teacher. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poet Lore, Omniverse, Burlesque Press, the Quarterly Conversation, and Arts Fuse.