Songs from the Back Row (Doug May)

Reviewed by Diane R. Wiener

This collection of nearly 35 years of May’s poetry, in a book just shy of 100 pages, features a combination of surprising stories of decades-old pain, now-deceased caregivers, deliberate rhyming, and intermittently crystal clear idioms, all undergirding a lifetime with “ADD, behavioral issues, and depression”—as the author’s book cover mini-biography reveals. Having had no prior familiarity with May’s work, I was nevertheless swept up quickly in the early poems about youth’s physical explorations, what today might be called “on the down low” male sexuality, and, later, themes of abuse, hospitalization, educational outsider-ness, and classism, at times co-mingled in strategically disconcerting ways.

I found, at turns, a combination of unevenness and brilliance in the collection—certainly not an uncommon occurrence in a book of this length and orientation. While in reading some of the poems I felt like I was summoned, even compelled—as happens with memoir—to join in during an impressively uncomfortable memory, other works felt subtle, resonant, almost shy.

Not shy, however, is “The Bad Piano Teacher,” a work that reflects upon boundaries dishonored and then violated in ways that may ring especially vividly for readers living in the current time. In addition to the adult protagonist’s reflecting on their child-self’s past, another former-child haunts the page:

Only that boy was
too scared to talk
and his mother
didn’t want the cops
or anybody to know.

So the world
never learned
what happened to
the boy I never met

who left behind
question marks
tangled up
like green snakes
in the dust

and a blur of hot breath
and velvet snarls
every time Mozart
plays on the radio.

May’s poems are often deeply serious, dealing with sanitaria, oral and injectable medication, botched healthcare access, now-dead pets, and familial attempts to heal at-times nearly impossible troubles. These themes and their poetic approaches were often far less interesting to me than the poems that seemed to come out of nowhere—and knocked me to the floor.

One of the strongest of these (to-the-floor) poems, “Conservation of Energy” has an elegiac serenity that feels calming while wrenching. Appearing about a third of the way into the collection, it arrives as a surprise in between the war poems and songs of the desert:

I listen to the
washing machine
at 2 AM

low surf noises
like somebody trying
to escape
their body

or a sleepwalker
carrying the city
on her back
across moats of

green stars.

While May has poems making explicit reference to and at times taking issue with psychotropic medications—including the aptly titled, “Ritalin”—I found “Conservation of Energy” a much more interesting work than some of these other examples, in its complicated tribute to living with disability that neither demonizes nor romanticizes experience.

“Conservation of Energy,” the title of which at least partly references principles of physics, contains mythical imagery combined unashamedly with the ordinary or the day-to-day. For me, the piece evoked early examples of Maxine Kumin’s work. In the poem immediately after, “Family of Man,” May references domesticity, again: “You don’t like the way / I dust and vacuum / you don’t like how I feed / a few stray mice.” The interlocutors may shift a fair amount throughout the book, but there are several folks with whom May has a consistent bone to pick, it is clear.

Vermin are not the only invading forces deserving of our readerly compassion; like May’s—or the poetic protagonist’s—frustrations with healthcare, and oftentimes negotiating being an outsider, there are numerous references to insects. Among the several truly colossal accomplishments in the collection, “Jimmy” might be my favorite. We are returned to 2 AM, as the poem begins, addressed directly with a question:

You know how cockroaches
like to suddenly
dart across the tiles
when you turn the
bathroom lights on
at 2 AM?

Well, this one
stayed put
next to the tube of Crest

like he was tired
of running and OK
with dying.

The poet befriends the cockroach (“And after awhile / he even waved / his feelers at me / like he was trying / to tell me a joke / or share a story / about his brother in law”). Their ongoing companionship and quiet familiarity in the middle of the night seem bucolic, by the toothpaste, until a horrific turn of events:

Then one morning when
it looked like
because of a few
monsoon clouds

he greeted my sister
thinking it was me.

It took him a
long time to die

His legs kicking
slower and slower
against sticky
kernels of air

We learn that Jimmy’s eyes finally stopped blinking, and “froze / into fire opals.” The poet mourns a nonhuman sibling, contrasted boldly with the human sister whose likely startled reaction caused the loss: “Now I miss him / like somebody / I never knew / except in dreams / of lost brothers / underneath the city.”

“Jimmy” underscores feelings of isolation and alienation; importantly, though, the work speaks of a loving interspecies company. The poem is by no means merely Kafkaesque. May privileges the intruder, the cockroach, a creature that can presumably survive nuclear disaster. “Jimmy” is readable in the tradition of literary works that invert the sacred and the profane, the insider and the outsider. The work can also be read as May joining a conversation with other disabled poets, refusing trenchant normalizing and instead choosing an innovative path.

Many of the poems in Songs from the Back Row are apparently autobiographical works that tend to highlight a history of having been ostracized and misunderstood, left behind and misapprehended—the title is overt in this regard, among others. May could have fused his authorial voice into the typically loathed insect’s presentation. Instead, he identifies with “Jimmy” and finds him fascinating, even humorous. In turn, we are asked to do the same.

“The Wrong Side of 60” grapples with mortality in a wholly different way, including through the use of life review and explicit references to disability. The poem begins, “hey I didn’t think / I was supposed to live / this long.” Its line break suggests a potential double meaning: “I didn’t think I was supposed to live” at all, let alone “this long.” This theme is understandably frequent in disability poetics. The poem continues with complicated, not entirely nostalgic references. The second verse is about “doctors’ offices” in early childhood, and the third verse states, “queuing for fish sticks / and brown betty / in a cafeteria where I / no longer get to be / special.” The protagonist reflects how he realized he was “just weird and tall and / out of place / among the gifted / and the ambitious.”

In “The Wrong Side of 60,” Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) seems to be contrasted with or set up in relationship to an awaited while feared maturation: “still too many parts of speech / and numbers that don’t / add up” is followed by “maybe if I’m lucky / the sticky sweet carrot / of a mother’s lap / easy to climb / but too frightened / of a big boy’s / urges / to hold me until / the lesson plan / finally sinks in.”

Nearing the end of the collection, another surprise arrives in “The Bird of Cold Nights.” While the first and final sections of the eight-verse poem do necessary work to contextualize the images, the similes and metaphors of the middle six verses are truly the poem’s core, as well as among the book’s most lyrical and effective phrases:

The houses here
Sleep like knights
In barrels of straw,

An orphan wakes
With a tuning fork
Frozen to his tongue

And crumbling hymns
Of black moss
Pillowing his head.

He is the one
Who migrates
Further into himself

After hummingbirds
And starlings abandon
Whey-colored afternoons,

Too late for him
To return home

“The Bird of Cold Nights” anticipates a conversation it might be having with “The Wizard,” in which the poet begins, “Sometimes I bury / my head where / nothing grows / but bad / thoughts.” The storyteller then shifts gears, going on to describe “the moon” that “slips through / the gaps / in my blinds” as the cause of the witch’s melting, “and [the] broken / flights of / ruby slippers” that are left behind. While there are negotiations and reckonings in reading the book, Songs from the Back Row has plenty of ruby slippers to try on along the way.

Title: Songs from the Back Row
Author: Doug May
Publisher: UnCollected Press (Raw Art Review) 
Date: 2019

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About the Reviewer

Diane R. Wiener became Editor-in-Chief of Wordgathering in January 2020. A poet since the age of seven, her first full-length poetry collection, The Golem Verses, was published in 2018 by Nine Mile Press. Diane’s poems also appear in Nine Mile Magazine, Wordgathering, Tammy, Queerly, The South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. Her poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Welcome to the Resistance: Poetry as Protest (Stockton University Press). Diane’s creative nonfiction appears in Stone Canoe; her flash fiction appears in Ordinary Madness (Weasel Press). After serving as Guest Editor for Nine Mile Literary Magazine’s Fall 2019 Special Double Issue on Neurodivergent, Disability, Deaf, Mad, and Crip poetics, Diane was appointed Assistant Editor for the magazine. The Founding Director of the Syracuse University Disability Cultural Center (2011-2018), Diane now serves as a Research Professor and as the Associate Director of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach for the Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, where she also teaches in the Renée Crown University Honors program. She has published widely on disability, pedagogy, and empowerment, among other subjects. Diane is a proud Neuroqueer, Mad, Crip, Gender Nonconforming, Jewish Pantheist Nerd (etc.). She blogged for the Huffington Post between May 2016 and January 2018. You can visit Diane online at: