When I first heard that one of my favorite poets, Jamaal May, published a new collection, it felt like Christmas again. I knew from reading his debut collection, Hum, that May has a knack for ripping apart language and making it new. In The Big Book of Exit Strategies, the magic doesn’t stop. Each poem is nothing short of an adventure, each line more remarkable than the last: “I’m afraid speaking will splinter / into a confession of how I like the muffled sea/ of your voice, your jaw stilled by rigging” (“Mouth” lines 10-12). Readers: Know that anything I write in this post will come short of capturing the energy of this collection.
The Big Book of Exit Strategies is split in three sections. Fans of May will love the continuation of the fear poems from Hum, as well as the dark beauty in May’s language: “When they say, C’mon, be a man, don’t they hear /the barbells hitting the floor in his head? Don’t you / hear the furniture scrapes and appliances rattle . . .” (“Megalophobia: Fear of large things” lines 12-14). The poems in the The Big Book of Exit Strategies leave you begging for more, even at their most haunting. They love to play with irony, as well as find similarities between seemingly opposite ideas: “from the outside in, the inside of a fist, / decay-dark socket in the head / of a bleached cow skull –“ (“Yes, I Know She’s Dying” lines 14-16). This is a collection of poems that will startle you again and again through their strange imagery and surprising twists.
For me, one of the most powerful poems in this collection that I’ve been coming back to again and again is “The Gun Joke.” May does an excellent job at commenting about the gun problem we have in the U.S by highlighting the absurdity in the phrase “it’s funny.”: “She doesn’t mean funny as in funny, but funny / as in blood soup tastes funny when you stir in soil” (lines 4-5).It’s poems like these that resonate with readers because of their relevancy.
May also does a great job of capturing Detroit. The poem “The Unseen Hand of Zombie Jesus” reads: “His hands / are gone altogether, having rotted and fallen off / on a trek to Detroit’s southwest side” (lines 3-5). He captures the grittiness of the city with poignancy in many of the poems in The Big Book of Exit Strategies.
I think its neat that May segues each section with a cover of a door. The cover of the collection also does a great job of introducing readers to May’s work. The Big Book of Exit Strategies is a must read, and I do not mean this lightly.
Cover of The Big Book of Exit Strategies and Hum courtesy of Alice James Books.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about Alice James Books: “Alice James Books is named after the sister of the famous philosopher William James and novelist Henry James, Alice James. She lived a largely confined and isolated life. The youngest of five children, she never married and lived with her parents until their deaths. Although her four brothers were broadly educated in the US and Europe, Alice’s education was haphazard, reflecting her father’s belief that “The very virtue of woman… disqualifies her for all didactic dignity. Learning and wisdom do not become her.” Keenly self-aware, she started a journal in 1889, as a way of recording her own understanding of herself. She entrusted it to her friend Katherine Loring, shortly before her death in 1892, of breast cancer. Loring sent copies to her brother Henry and other family members. In 1943 it was published, in incomplete form, by a niece, who called it Alice James: Her Brothers — Her Journal. Not until 1964 was the journal published in its entirety. Alice James has since become somewhat of a feminist icon, in recognition of her struggle for self-expression within the repressive Victorian notion of femininity.”*