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Brett Foster


Bob Hicok and Jamaal May

Spoken words worth the trip.

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I used a roller-coaster image earlier when describing Bob Hicok's shifts and loops of thought, and now I must resort to the image again, but in a different way. When May's intensity grows in the course of a poem, or when he is confidently reciting his verses from memory, it feels like nothing so much as the whole room climbing to the peak of a coaster rail; that night, listeners were rapt by "Granada," held in suspension, and awaiting the next burst of speed and energy. This poem won for May the audience's applause. This auditory emphasis is still present in the poems' printed form. Take, for example, the syncopation in the following lines from "Listening to Uncle":

Seen but not. Heard
as echo ring of a snare wane
of a note plucked
from an out-of-tune Dreadnaught.

Within the poems, too, speakers remain sensitive to these effects. "Notice the similarity to hymn or chant," says one, describing the statements I love the body and I love the word. Then attention shifts to a communion scene in a church: "and if this man offered his blood and flesh, what had / we become now that we were all lined up like words / in scriptures, arranged neatly on pews like suit-clad / lines of verse consuming a man before we pray?" Later in The Whetting of Teeth, the poem "Pyrophobia" is composed more explicitly as a chant, while in "Hydrophobia" May's use of line break and sound effect creates mesmerizing effects:

There is an icicle
on the other side of the locked door
taking its time to drill a hollow
into a barrow of snow, one drop
at a time. I'm noticing
my hands,
how little they hold.

Detroit is prominent in May's work; he's the son of two auto workers there. One of the poems he read featured this rich domestic scene: "My Dad once fiddled with a dead Camaro, refusing to believe its silence." The poem "Warhouse" refers to the name that neighborhood kids gave to a "dilapidated colonial" that they imagined was a "weapons stockpile / or a government test facility[.]" These boys are further delineated in "Taking a Pseudonym," where "City boys pin nicknames / to each other like medals": Ghost, Head, Smooth, Jergens. The poem's ending considers Detroit, "a place where darkness / sits like a judge[.]" Is it more Gotham or Metropolis, Batman's or Superman's city? "Detroit / looks like Gotham eating Metropolis alive," the poem declares, but does so not so much to elicit pity as to introduce a toughened pride: "haven't you ever wanted to be called / by the name worn by the warrior in your belly?" the reader is intriguingly asked. Similarly, in one online poem, "Ask What I've Been," May describes his native city as "a stretch of highway littered / with windshield, // a boy picking the remains / of window from his hair."

So, for one brief night, Atlanta was the site of a literary migration, as two poets that Michigan can justly boast of descended into this southern city. How best to describe the night, and the event, and the poems? Easy. It was fun.

Brett Foster is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. The Garbage Eater, his first collection of poems, was published last year by Northwestern University Press. A new collection, Fall Run Road, recently won Finishing Line Press's chapbook competition, and is forthcoming.

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