Detroit poet Jamaal May’s poem “I Do Have A Seam,” which he reads in the video above, is three poems in one. The form, called a contrapuntal poem, is made up of two columns. The reader can read the first column alone, the second column alone, and both columns combined. As you can hear in May’s reading above, each reading provides a different feeling, a different mood – in this case, each version building to create a beautiful swell as he reads the poem as a whole. In the interest of remaining true to format and just to show the intricacy and sheer beauty of the form, here is the text:
In the poem, as in many poems in May’s book Hum, the speaker is talking about components – here, literally and figuratively illustrating the construction of a body. The seam as a “chrome zipper,” the chest a work for a seamstress – throughout his poems, individuals and objects are one in the same, being comprised of, being broken down, being discarded as well as being created.
The poem “Still Life” begins: “Boy with roof shingles / duct taped to shins and forearms / threading barbed wire through pant loops.” The scenery becomes the scene, intricately involved with the characters, as the boy goes on to fasten a towel as a make-shift super-hero cape. “Boy in the shuttered district, / a factory of shattered vials // green and brown glass.” The boy is created and bolstered by the remnants of the city around him.
Often in his poems, Detroit is predominantly featured throughout Hum, not only as a setting but as an influence. A spirit. May is depicting the world in terms of production and of parts, just as the city famously thrived on factories in its past.
The poem “Hum of the Machinist’s Lover” begins “There is zinc under your / breastplate, copper in your / throat. I polish your steel // to a shimmer”. The machines are beautiful, and personified. The city is personified, and less beautiful. In the poem “And Even the Living Are Lost,” May writes “Pigeons scrap over a crust of bread while feathers / fall into filthy runoff water. The gutter spits them / down the throat of a sewer. The sewer gives us nothing, / the curb at least returns the dice.” The machines are idealized things of beauty, the city is a broken landscape.
There is a longing to bring things together in May’s poems: to embrace what was beautiful about Detroit alongside what is not, the past and the present, the individual and the city as a whole, human emotions and machinery. Perhaps, like the contrapuntal poem itself, to take these two columns and make them work as one, as a new poem altogether.
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