Pushcart 2015: Jamaal May, “The Hum of Zug Island” (poem) from Kenyon Review, #35.3

In Windsor they blame it on machines
across the Detroit River. Residents can’t ignore
the low frequency hum taking the shape of a sea-
serpent on oscilloscopes. Beyond gray snow,
plastic bags, and crushed hypodermic needles,
I know Zug Island is humming—waiting
the way the organs in me are waiting….

And again, I had to find a way in to a poem. I could sense something there, waiting for me, but I didn’t know how to get to it. In this case, I used form, which led to the structure of the collection from which it came, which all brought me to the heart, where I was so overwhelmed and astonished, I didn’t know if I could ever organize my thoughts enough to write about it. I still don’t know if I can, but I’m going to try, by retracing my steps.

On first read (it’s available online for those who’d like to follow along, thank you, Kenyon Review) I just got machines – messy, dirty, unpleasant, scary – and some kind of pressure. Time. Waiting. Ignoring.

I didn’t realize I had it all, until I went looking for more. I started with form.

In his Conversation with KR, May described the poem as a sestina. I had no idea what that was (I’ve already admitted I’m poorly educated in poetics, which is what I’m doing here: learning from the best). Turns out, a sestina is a poem in six six-line stanzas with a three-line envoi, a sort of summary, at the end. But that isn’t all. Instead of rhyme, the poem is given unity by repetition: the same six words are used to end every line in a specific pattern, changing order with every stanza, until in the envoi, two words are used per line. It’s insane. How does anyone write like this? It’s so rigid and intricate – kind of like… a machine…

And yet, I can see for myself how effective it is. Three of the six words that form the structure of this poem are: machine, waiting, ignore: three of the words I “got” from reading, when I thought I didn’t get much. “Needle” is the fourth word, which may have contributed to the scary unpleasantness. “Snow” and “sea,” the final two structure words, are broad enough to go in any direction. They can be beautiful and freeing – or dirty, unpleasant, and scary.

Through reading another of May’s conversations, this one with Stacey Balkun of The Normal School, I learned of the generation of this poem, linked to the structure of the collection, Hum, in which it appears. Six of the other poems are about phobias: fear of needles, being ignored, machines, etc. May took those six words and, over time and with some rewrites, ended up with two sestinas that “act as a pair of subtle bookends that tie the phobia thread together and, by extension, the core tropes of the collection.” I love the way these poems use form: he includes a form I particularly love, the contrapuntal, titled “I Do Have a Seam” – three poems in one, a left side, a right side, and both sides together, making it the perfect form for that content (there’s a really nice digital short on his Youtube channel)

I needed to understand one more thing before I could make my way to the poem: what is Zug Island? Is it even a real thing? It certainly sounds like it in the poem, but where, what, is it, and why does he say it hums? Turns out, not only is Zug Island very real (it’s in Detroit), its hum is also very real, and a source of considerable irritation to those living nearby, particularly to those in the pleasant suburb of Windsor, Ontario, just across the river in Canada. The hum is probably coming from the US Steel plant.

We all want what our technology can produce: the steel, oil, minerals, electricity, paper. And we want the financial stability of industry. We want our machines. But not the pollution, the smells, the traffic. Or the hum. We even have an acronym for it: NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard. Give us the benefits, but hide the dirty, unpleasant, scary parts. Or put them in someone else’s back yard.

My jittery friends, I know waiting
is a hand closing slowly around needle
points, but we need the patience of a frozen sea.
Sometimes that quiets my machines,
the hum gets easier to ignore….

The hum I hear through this poem goes way beyond Zug Island, way beyond the scars we put on our landscape. This hum is the imbalance of wealth in America, which is nothing compared to the global imbalance of wealth. This hum is who’s doing those jobs you keep hearing about in political speeches, the jobs Americans don’t want, because they’re dangerous, poorly paid, unpleasant, physically exhausting, and how little they’re getting paid so we can eat the fruits of their labors. This hum is WalMart workers on food stamps. This hum is whose apartment gets turned into a condo and where they go then. This hum is whose kids get clean, well-maintained schools with highly trained and experienced teachers, and whose kids get nothing after some politician gets elected by cutting taxes. This hum is who’s protected by the police, and who’s abused and killed by them. This hum is the sound of the dream deferred from under the rug where we’ve swept it. This hum is about who decides to go to war, and who is sent onto the battlefield. This hum is which lives matter. This hum is reminding us: we will reap what we have sown, and it will be dirty, unpleasant, scary.

Then again, maybe that’s my hum, not the hum in the poem, and I’m forcing my hum onto the poem, because I can’t think of much else these days.

In the KR conversation I quoted earlier, May talks about his approach, which also incorporates the mechanistic aspects of the poem and the collection:

These poems are in greater danger of mono-dimensionality, which in a poem with sociopolitical concerns leads swiftly to didacticism. I find that an idea can be so good or important or jarring or socially relevant the poet can be less naturally inclined to find the other spokes that make the wheel turn. My mentor Vievee Francis always said a poem needs torque. I take this to mean a poem always needs a thing moving against another thing around a fulcrum, because without torque nothing moves. I’m kind of old-fashioned in that I want poems to move people.

I love that a 12th century form I’ve never heard of led me here. I took a circuitous path; that could be considered torque, no? A bit of patience and thought and research brought me beyond the surface and let me hear the hum, which may be the first step to figuring out what to do about it.

One response to “Pushcart 2015: Jamaal May, “The Hum of Zug Island” (poem) from Kenyon Review, #35.3

  1. Pingback: Pushcart XL: Perry Janes, “Night Movers” from Glimmer Train #90 | A Just Recompense

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