books, Reading

“The Big Book of Exit Strategies” by Jamaal May


It’s funny, she says,
how many people are shocked by this shooting
and the next and next and the next.

She doesn’t mean funny as in funny, but funny
as in blood soup tastes funny when you stir in soil.
– from The Gun Joke

With a trippy cover like this one, you really don’t know what you are in for. What you are in for, in fact, is an important and moving journey. “The Big Book of Exit Strategies” is, in truth, quite small, but it packs an emotional punch that belies its size. The mind-bending artistry of Jamaal May is poignant, political, and powerful. May’s poetry is rhythmic, his cadences smooth and sumptuous, and his messages are cruel  and honest.

May writes of love and loss with chilling eloquence, as in “Yes, I know She’s Dying”:

I make metaphor for the empty51nvo4qqpql-_sy344_bo1204203200_
she is becoming – a trench opening
from the outside in, the inside of a fist,
decay-dark socket in the head
of a bleached cow skull –

because its the only way
to make real the unreal
way she’s disappearing
while showing up everywhere
and losing weight
while getting too heavy
for me to carry
and carry on the way I do. 

His poems about race are maybe even more intimate, his imagery full of raw emotion and impact that aches like a weight on your chest. May’s anger is righteous, his subjects all-too-relevant, his tone resonant and true. I feel unusually uneasy trying to frame his words with my own, and so I will let a small sampling of the artist’s work stand on its own. Enjoy and be enticed.

History as Road-Trip from Detroit to Mississippi
Coming black
into the deep south,
my friend says,
is like returning to an elegant home
you were beat in
as a child.
I press my head to glass
and try to interpret
the landscape
turning dark as the sun
surrenders again.

This drive is an inhale
needing exhale
but terrified of it.
To breathe out is to let go
and letting go
might be a pastime
best left to historians.

Here’s the whole hollow
of a dog’s chest
on the road rising
like an artifact. Fossil. Here
is the heat hanging low enough to make mirage.
Here is the puddle
no one can drink from.

Here in this land
or whatever it is
the gods used
to call land,
I become more us
than me, more
blistered sole
and sore
and dogwood
and all of us
and all of this
looking back

into the agrarian
cage made of
all these rising
stems, from blood

to whatever it is
the gods used
to call blood,
and see my limbs
for what they are:
It’s what context does –

The mouth that keeps
opening wider
to take in the memory,
gnaw until it is mangled
and disfigured

like history,
and what else
could we ask of history
but to mimic

whatever is chewed
and spit
at our constantly
re-arriving feet?

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