In Unusually Grand Ideas: Poems, James Davis May chronicles life-changing loss and depressive cycles. Simultaneously, in poignant, personal narratives, the poems’ speaker adeptly captures how clinical depression and its complications reverberate through marriage and fatherhood. While it is inherently a dark collection, occasional glimmers of hope, levity, and emotional light emerge via sparse yet lyrical language.
Despite its lyricism, the collection relies on non-traditional forms which utilize extensive indentation, stacking, and tabbing to create emotional intensity. “Red in Tooth and Claw” is a masterful poem where this technique heightens readers’ emotional engagement. Right-aligned phrases like “after a long illness” and “and maybe fully kill” act as turning points. The word “battle” stands independently as its own line. This placement is significant to the poem since “battle” is the one word the speaker refuses to use to describe their friend’s struggle with cancer.
As they reckon with their friend’s death, the speaker confesses, “I wanted everything to be better than it is” and describes what they do for the feral cat living outside: “so I went to the fridge, got out the milk, / and poured it into a little bowl, which I left on the porch / and found empty the next morning.” At this point, the poem transforms into more than one friend’s reflection about another friend’s death. It is a poem about how one can transform their pain into something more than pain with simple acts of kindness.
The South and its landscapes are not necessarily overt or dominant in Unusually Grand Ideas, but it is, at times, important to the collection. “At Mercier Orchards” reads like a contemporary revision of Frost’s “After Apple-Picking.” It opens with the quietly elegant line “That first creeping-in of fall in August,” a line that even in structure and rhythm might remind readers of Frost’s “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree.” The poem utilizes attentive enjambment:
So the border of every model includes us
and what we imagine. Try putting something
outside the box and you’ve just drawn another box.
Like one of those Russian nesting dolls.
Nonetheless, “At Mercier Orchards” is not simply a quiet homage to the southern landscape in which the poem is set. It addresses a larger, intrinsic American issue — gun violence. An acknowledgment of the violent legacies carefully folded into America’s societal cloth overshadows the speaker’s serene depictions of blueberry picking in an orchard. The speaker observes:
as though they’re burning slowly. The man
picking blueberries with his family thinks
alternately of the mass shooting
earlier that morning at a nightclub,
which he saw on the news that he turned off
when his four-year-old daughter came into the room.
These stark lines pose rhetorical questions asked, perhaps, by many in American society: Where will it happen next? Why? When does it end?
“Out Too Far” is one of the collection’s shortest poems. Its brief length works in the language’s favor because it compresses domestic images with rhetorical questions:
His wife, he’ll find out later, is worried
he hates them. How to tell her
that he sometimes doesn’t know how
he’s ended up in bed? That he’s not
sleeping, or even thinking? That he’s
gasping, and that’s about it, that his day
has been moving toward this moment—.
The compression and the enjambment align words like “sleeping” and “gasping.” In turn, the speaker’s struggle to simply engage in everyday life becomes even more apparent to readers, so that by the poem’s conclusion the speaker’s struggle is the reader’s struggle.
“Moonflowers” is a poem in the vein of many of the environmentally themed poems in Stuart Dischell’s The Lookout Man. It is a poem not only about reconnecting with nature but also about reconnecting with one’s loved ones after mental illness has disrupted the relationship. A masterfully linguistic poem, it too employs enjambment to move the poem deeper and deeper into emotional depths. Phrases like “watching the wound husks” and “until the bloom decides” become turning points within the poem and for the speaker. At these points, choice and freedom unwind, and the objective observations about nature descend into a heartfelt moment of personal recognition:
I go to where my daughter stands, flowers
strung along the vine like Christmas lights,
one not yet lit. We praise the world by making
others see what we see. So now she points and feels
what must be pride when the bloom unlocks itself
from itself. And then she turns to look at me.
This moment of reconnection, of parental intimacy, is conveyed minimally in everyday language which might be easily forgettable. However, the moment, its meaning, and the speaker’s sentiment transcend and even conquer language’s ability to capture the time and the place when something fractured miraculously fits together again.
Perhaps that is the best way to think of James Davis May’s Unusually Grand Ideas: each poem is a tiny dab of the healing glue sealing together the pieces of life that violence, death, and illness so heartlessly break and shatter. A brave collection, its poems dare to traverse emotional territories other collections do not explore. A vulnerable collection, its speaker guides readers on a Theseus-like journey and comforts them along the way, saying It’s okay if you’re not the same after this. None of us truly are.
Unusually Grand Ideas: Poems
By James Davis May
Louisiana State University Press
Published February 22, 2023