The Big Book of Exit Strategies

by Stephen Burt

May’s 2013 debut, Hum, turned heads with its formal inventions (sestinas, a series of conceits about rare phobias) and its unrelenting attention to damaged places and damaged bodies—Gulf War veterans, victims of street violence, sites and scenes in May’s native Detroit. His follow-up holds often wilder, looser verse on the same and similar topics: “In the open mouths of our many graves,” one page begins, “are the teeth of our many friends.” “War took our prayers like nothing else can, / left us dumber than remote drones.” The urgency, the omnipresent fears—May is often in fight-or-flight mode—and the search for new figures, new forms, are still there, though some of the forms themselves are new to May (for example, an abbreviated crown of seven sonnets). New, too, are poems addressing the tough days and humiliating tasks of mental-health workers and psychiatric-hospital staff: “I scour these rooms where air / closes like fists on the handrims of a wheel chair.” Another poem begins with flat, frightening fact—“my shift supervisor / at a runaway shelter strip-searched six teenagers”—then modulates into meditation on the poet’s own character, his willingness to “work any job this hard.” Other characters feel divided against themselves, deeply false, as if method-acting their own lives: “Death Scene in a Psychiatric Ward,” for example, carries the telling subtitle “What’s my motivation?” Each poem is its own performance, its own disturbance in the dangerous air. Yet the book also keeps one eye on the street, on the Detroit upbringing to which the poet returns: “Detroit, when I said you’re dreaming, I meant, / you are dreaming. Keep making me up.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2016.