Jamaal May’s book Hum has won the Beatrice Hawley Award, the ALA Notable Book Award, and was a finalist for the NAACP Image award. His second collection is The Big Book of Exit Strategies and he has also published two chapbooks, The God Engine and The Whetting of Teeth. His poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Believer, Ploughshares, New England Review and The Kenyon Review. He has also been a recipient of the Kenyon Review Fellowship at Kenyon College, Bread Loaf, Callaloo and the Civitella Ranieri Fellowship. He is the series editor, graphic designer and filmmaker for the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook and Video Series.
Ode to the White-Line-Swallowing Horizon
Apologies to the moths
that died in service
to my windshield’s cross-country journey.
Apologies to the fine country
cooking vomited into a rest stop bathroom.
Apologies to the rest stop janitor.
To the mop, galvanized bucket,
sawdust, and push broom—the felled
tree it was cut from, dulled saw, blistered hand,
I offer my apologies. To the road.
To the white-line-swallowing horizon.
I’ve used you almost up.
I’m sorry I don’t know another way
to push the charcoal outline of that house
into the ocean-dark behind me.
For being a grown man
with a boogeyman at his back.
Apologies to the grown man growing out
of a splintering boy’s body.
Apologies to the splinters. Little ones,
you should’ve been a part of something whole.
God of the Wood
The air in this world is thicker than I remember
from nights at camp, whacking fireflies with a fallen branch.
I wondered if the shadows, numbering in the hundreds, were all cast
by the same god I hung out with when I was little—his voice
is the silence I’ve been afraid to hear since.
I would smack the side of a tree and stand in the rust-red
shower of leaves until I felt stronger than god;
I could’ve cracked his moon in half
if I wanted to—if I swung my stick high and hard enough,
if I screamed loud enough. But I’m afraid
to know what happens when enough
is the sound of my staff splintering against heaven,
a shock up my arm—
more with every strike.
sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssNo gods, still, though
I broke away from the campfire and its songs
so I could kneel in the woods, let wild grass grow
to meet my damp knees. To kneel with a question and rise
with a question is only one way to forget
your old prayers. Another is to busy your hands with sticks
carving your runes into a clearing’s mud. I learned dead trees
could be pushed over by my small hands
if the rot was enough and I had leverage.
They creaked, cracked, and tumbled
sssssssssssssssssssI don’t know where;
my eyes couldn’t follow that far in the dark.
I pretended there was another camp at the bottom
where they worshiped a god of wood and sap, and nightly,
when I snuck from my tent, I responded to their prayers with a sign,
this very wood crashing down around them.
There Are Birds Here
There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
and buildings. No.
The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
his neighborhood is not like a war zone.
I am trying to say
is as tattered and feathered
as anything else,
as shadow pierced by sun
and light parted
by shadow-dance as anything else,
but they won’t stop saying
how lovely the ruins,
how ruined the lovely
children must be in that birdless city.