* strangering the everyday with jamaal may

Reading Jamaal May’s Hum this week, I found much to admire – he works out not one but two solid sestinas and a pantoum as well as some versatile lyrical free verse throughout. What moved me most is his ability to move each poem beyond formal concerns and invest it with some emotional weight and insight.

The poem below is a great example of what I mean. May uses the elasticity of the word “If” to draw out as many facets of a couple of everyday objects as he can. When he leaves the reader with the image of a plastic bag at the end, he does so in such a way as to draw out something new from a familiar image.

* getting carried away *
* getting carried away *


If They Hand Your Remains to Your Sister
in a Chinese Takeout Box 
— Jamaal May

If an urn won’t do because ceramics
are not biodegradable and you need your ashes
buried in the plot next to your estranged wife
where you can help her feed the worms,
nurture soil, and lift trees into the sky —

If your obit is scrawled on notebook paper,
ripped out and photocopied,
rigid edges and all, and lines still show up
faint like soap scum collected
on a mirror above the motel sink
you were found slumped beneath —

If they hand your remains to your sister
in a Chinese takeout box, give thanks
for the giggling of your niece and give thanks
for this moment when, after tearing
a liquor-stenched wound down the middle
of this family, it for once won’t be mentioned

as they gather. Take solace that the plastic bag
carrying you to the cemetery will,
instead of joining you underground,
spend decades holding hands with a breeze
wandering around some landfill somewhere
repeating in bold red font,



Happy thanking!


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