“My nostalgia is a pyromaniac
I follow into a condemned barn
that once served as a night club
as if there were a dance
left in any of us.”
-Jamaal May, The Tendencies of Walls
Jamaal May’s second poetry collection, The Big Book of Exit Strategies is a tender force with serious reckoning. From the mundane slicing of a finger while cutting an onion to Zombie Jesus plugging his email address to make $$ at home—there are serious issues being debated under a shining slick veneer. Although the poems have a wide range and style, the common thread that ties the collection together is Detroit City; even when not directly mentioned, the rhythm of Motown, the cold wind blowing off the lake down the derelict streets and a deep sense of nostalgia fills each poem.
In the poem, “Shift,” May takes a comic stab at the working poor. The narrative aspect pulls together an autobiographical story of working as an audio-visual aid at The Hyatt Regency Dearborn. May turns the personal universal. We have all held those dead-end jobs. We have all had those dead-beat supervisors. We know where this is going, but like a spoken-word stand-up comic who magically pulled the rug out from under you, may turns profound on the last stanza:
I’d learned that I’d work any job this hard, ache
like this to know that I could always ache for something.
There’s a hell for people like us
where we shovel the coal we have mined ourselves
into furnaces that have burned the flesh from out bones
nightly, and we never miss a shift.
The Big Book of Exit Strategies has belly laughs jammed up against gut stabs. Jamaal May wins his readers over and then patiently dissects his issues with wisdom and skill and generous empathy. Whoever says poetry is dead, has not read Jamaal May’s cunning collection “The Big Book of Exit Strategies” but they should because there is nothing dead in this volume. Image, voice, beauty and pain is alive and well in Detroit, and so exactingly personal, it is universal.