by James Davis May
Goat Island Poets, Series Editor: Claudia Emerson
Louisiana University Press, 2016
Unquiet Things is the debut collection by James Davis May, a poet with prodigious powers of observation and description. May makes metaphors and similes from everyday things in ways that elevate both the object and its comparison into something arresting and original. His work has been called a poetry of the quotidian, and it does deal with a wide range of everyday topics–the stuff that bounds a life–but the clarity of May’s writing and his self-deprecating honesty create an intriguing intimacy of the ordinary. He handles the humor of familiar situations and the tragedies of life equally well, all from a certain distance that welcomes the reader into his space, but never dips into cynicism, sentimentality or melodrama.
May describes himself as having Romantic tendencies–Wordsworth was his first literary love–and speaks of Czeslaw Milosz and Coleridge poems as influences on his writing. Originally from Pittsburgh and now Assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Young Harris College in the Georgia mountains, he won the Collins Award from Birmingham Poetry Review in 2013. His poem “Ed Smith” won the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award in 2016 for a lyric poem that addresses a philosophical or epistemological concern.
Unquiet Things begins with “The Reddened Flower, The Erotic Bird,” about wondrous things May, his wife (poet Chelsea Rathburn) and his mother have shared with each other. The poem ends with the lines:
do we report them because they are stand-in, almost,
for grace? And what cynicism keeps me from saying
that we do so because we love, and are surprised by, the world?
The poem is a kind of prelude or preface to the book, and to Part I with its poems that introduce us to May’s family, his boyhood, and some of his concerns and point of view as a poet; as in “Portrait of the Self as Skunk Cabbage” describing the plant in some detail then letting us see the narrator and his brother pursue the “too-bright green we hunted because it was ugly” a plant that reminded them of “nothing but itself and thus reminded us of ourselves.” They proceeded to slash it with hockey sticks attempting “erasure of something that we didn’t know we couldn’t erase.”
…The plant, I found out
years later, grows downward:
the roots pull the stem
deeper into the soil, too deep,
a gardener told me,
to kill it even if you wanted to.
In Part 2, anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will find, if not comfort at least a rueful smile. The poems “Reciprocal” and “It Must Have Been the Mussels” taken together are an offbeat and very insightful consideration of the truth of intimacy and how it really isn’t about sex. “Nostos” is a pitch-perfect recounting of an argument and its resolution — or not — the kind of discussion between lovers that becomes an argument that never quite ends:
…how happy we were to have back
what we had. I remember
I felt so heroic giving that to you
by just opening the door, which,
I can tell you now, I’m certain I shut.
In Parts 3 and 4, May continues to confirm himself as a poet and man who deeply notices the world around him and the people who inhabit it with him. In the poem “Someone Takes a Pine Tree Apart,” the poet’s musings are reminiscent of CK Williams’ work in “Tar.” Here we watch a workman outside May’s house climbing to the top of a dying tree to take it down:
…There’s something artistic,
almost, about the way he dismembers
the very thing that holds him up,
the shorn branches more sinking than falling…
A hard-to-place sadness, too, in watching
as the trunk flails with each loss like an animal
trying to reach some unreachable pain.
Think a lanced bull. Think… No, there are things
that aren’t like other things. And this is one.
Describing May’s poem “Ed Smith” for the Hemley Award announcement, Laura Kasischke wrote the following, which also speaks to the poems in Unquiet Things:
…its gentle suggestion, its careful observation, its tone of authority sweetened by its unabashed admission of confusion. Like a resonant one-act play, a candid photo, an intense but overheard anecdote, or a songlike soliloquy, there is simplicity and mystery here. They heighten one another. They are the tools of poetry, used here by a master of the craft.
The book ends with “A Lasting Sickness” remembering a boyhood illness. The poem is set off by a black page on which is printed “Coda,” and its final lines are an apt summation of the magic to be found in Unquiet Things.
……………..if you began to believe
as the boy did, that the world
not only acknowledges your suffering,
but turns to soothe it – what choice
would you have but to love the world
you so appallingly don’t understand?
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