Jamaal May's "Macrophobia (Fear of Waiting)"

Thoughts on tangents.

Macrophobia (Fear of Waiting)

I love too many women is not the best lead-in
for a conversation that will end
with me telling you I love you
for the first time. And this might not be
the best first date topic. I know this,
but I know it the same way
twelve-year-old me knew the firecracker
in my hand would be a dull burst
lost in the grass if I let it go too soon—
I’m asking if you are like me.
Do you let go too soon? Are you afraid
more of having hands covered in ash
than you are of getting the timing wrong?
This is stupid, but I couldn’t wait

to tell you everything
about the stranger, who after pushing
a peppermint over my teeth with her tongue,
told me she never wanted to leave
the listening range of my rambling.
This meant a lot coming from a wanderer
who would never have to hear it again;
I was booked on a plane that had already boarded
when a voice calling my name over the PA
reminded me I could not afford to wait for a later flight,

and ever since, I’ve been wondering
what runway my hesitation will invoke next,
wondering if it was bad timing
to finally ask for the dance I promised
after you had already become a twirling body
and nervous hand spilling rum across
someone else’s shoes? I get it, you got sick
of your life standing like a loaded gun—
everyday with me another hangfire. This wait
isn’t foreign to any of us. This wait is a friend
splitting blinds, looking for his cliché of a father.
It is a foot pressed against the door
of a locked closet. A girl stands on line in the rain
holding two concert tickets and this
is what rattles us, the space after
a question mark. Blood work and CAT scans.
What man faces a firing squad
without eventually longing for an exit wound.
This is stupid, but I was afraid to tell you

I kept fiddling with my phone through dinner
because I was fascinated
that every time I tried to type love,
I miss the o and hit i instead.
I live you is a mistake I make so often,
I wonder if it’s not
what I’ve been really meaning to say.

I want to say there is patience at the center
of every firework I hear bloom
from my balcony, signaling the end
of a Tigers game, but I can’t see them.
The second floor isn’t high enough. Clouds
above the taller buildings flicker, reflecting
their light, so tonight I’m going to watch that instead.
Make an evening of it. A dinner date
with myself and a bowl of handmade guacamole
from Honey Bee Market, and this time
I’m going to wait
to find out if one, just one,
can get high enough for me to see it explode.

from Hum (Alice James Books, 2013)

I won’t normally, I don’t think, post these little meditations on back-to-back days, but now that I have…

You should go ahead and read this one again. Read it again and notice how some lines take off from the ones before, go wayward, all bonkers, and yet offer some deliverance, some reckoning, some surprise.

“I am asking if you are like me.”

“This wait is a friend / splitting blinds, looking for his cliché of a father.”

“What man faces a firing squad / without eventually longing for an exit wound.”

Hum was one of my first favorite books. I remember purchasing it at the onset of my conceptualization of myself as a “poet” (not that long ago — I still have so much to learn), and when I look back at it now, re-read what I dog-eared, I can see that what I was drawn to, inherently, was the feeling of reading a mind at work in a poem. When I say work, I don’t mean the work of building something solid, or known — I mean the work of giving language to the mystery of feeling. This is a work of excess at the same time as it is work of precision. It’s fucking mind-melding work. It’s why James Alan McPherson wrote that “a writer is made an outsider by the demands of his vocation.”

McPherson might’ve been alluding to the way in which a writer is push-pulled between the world as it is and the world as it could be, between reality and mystery. And that seems true. And though the stakes there might seem higher than this poem’s, I don’t know if they are. Some poems make me think about syntax, others about metaphor, still others about form, but this poem makes me think about tangents. It makes me think about the capability of a mind to begin in one place and end in a different place. Though maybe it’s the same one.

Maybe a poem is a circle with a series of lines grazing off of it.

If one way to think of a poem is as a replica of a mind’s ability to hold multiple truths, then this poem can act as a sort of blueprint for that possible impossibility. Notice how the poem begins self-effacingly, almost humbly, tail-between-the-legs. Where could it go with a beginning like that? That’s a poet’s question, to think of beginnings. But I don’t know if this poem is thinking of the questions of poets. I think it is thinking of the questions of humans. And so this poem rolls on, enacting apology, enacting desire, enacting the tangential relationship of conversation. One idea into the next.

What I was first drawn to in this poem was the way it didn’t seem like a poem, based on my formal understanding of poetry, which has since been thrown out a window. Any understanding of poetry can be a limiting understanding of poetry. This poem seems like a conversation. It has the structure of one — the balance of apology and acknowledgement and assertion. It contains a speaker who seems flawed, who has some need of mercy, or grace, who holds shame in their body, who wants love. But most of all, it contains a speaker who is vulnerable. The poem becomes a poem at the end of the 9th line, when the em-dash is offered up like an upturned palm, when the line breaks, and we, the readers, are left with a 10th line that reads: “I am asking if you are like me.” It’s a remarkable feat of trust on May’s part as a poet — trust in both the humanness of what he is saying and the humanness of the reader.

It’s that humanness that makes me return to this poem, the humanness apparent in the repetition of the phrase “This is stupid,” the humanness that doesn’t pretend to know anything, the humanness that acknowledges its “rambling,” the humanness devoured by the wonder of the phone that auto-corrects I love you to I live you, the humanness that wonders aloud “if it’s not / what I’ve been really meaning to say.” To talk about craft in this poem is to begin with humanness. It’s to begin with unknowing, with vulnerability, with a little bit of shame. Humanness is, and will always be, a kind of excess. It will be a kind of feeling-too-much, a kind of saying-too-much, a kind of apologizing-too-much. And it will, in spite or because of these excesses, still never be enough. The poem wants so badly to explain. I love it. Let it, let it, let it. Outside, in the world, explanation can be the cause of so much stress, so much pain, but there is safety here, in the space this poem creates. When it offers its hand in language, I take it to listen.

In the end, if this poem can be distilled to being about anything, it is a poem about patience, or hopeful fear, which makes the craft of it — a conscious choice of meandering, of wonderment — so potent. It takes up so much space to get to so little. It talks and talks and talks until it says, to us, three lines from the end, that it’s “going to wait.” In many ways, the poem enacts a kind of crisis of masculinity, a desire to take up space, to apologize until it gets something right, and then, upon realizing the futility of that, just decides to wait. May’s speaker enacts that crisis, yes — but in doing so, subverts what could be forcefulness with humility. Instead of a poem about certainty, it becomes a poem about bewilderment. You see it in the questions — “Do you let go too soon?” — and the use of the word “wonder” (three times, in various forms). You see it in what is admitted: “I miss,” “I can’t see,” “This is stupid,” “I was afraid.” There is a litany existent in this poem. It is a litany of fear, and negative self-talk. It is a litany of shame.

A poem can explore this kind of humanness better than anything because a poem is a vehicle of bewilderment. A poem is a little mystery van, chugging the fuck along. And the beauty of a poem is that it can be many things. On one hand, it can be a way in which to name a thing exactly, particularly in a way that subverts or critiques a common, dominant narrative. But a poem can also be a way to circle a thing, and the crazy thing about things is that a thing can be the self, the self’s desire, the self’s dissonance, the self’s unknowing. To circle the self is to be alive. To circle the self is to place mystery above knowledge.

At the end of her poem, “The Mystery,” Louise Glück writes: “Who are you and what is your purpose?” It’s a wild, remarkable way to end a poem, and, in many ways, a fitting ghost-question that each poem must answer to. Who are you? What is your purpose? When I read Jamaal May’s poem, I feel his speaker answering both. And, as if being tricked by some sleight of hand, I feel myself answering too. When May’s speaker asks: “I’m asking if you are like me. / Do you let go too soon?” — I nod, and say yes, and I am carried through the whole poem. And maybe it’s only because the poem offered its hand. And maybe it’s only because I took it. And held on. And didn’t let go too soon. I trusted. And isn’t that a kind of magic? To read, and have what you are reading reach you?

Tonight, the fireworks are exploding up and down my city block. I always turn too late to seem them explode. But even if I miss them all night long, I know — that blaze of light, that fury of excess, was lit from some steady, sometimes shaking, hand.