‘A Brief History of Hostility‘ is written by the modern African American poet Jamaal May. This poem explores the themes of oppression and war with an implied reference to slavery. Jamaal May wrote this poem to portray how the black community faced hostility in the past. Though there is no direct reference to the challenges faced by them, readers can decode the reference from the usage of specific words. Another major theme of this work is war. How this war impacted the lives of not only blacks but also others gets featured. Fusing these two elements, Jamaal creates a bitter piece that creates a dystopian image of the time encumbered by the horrors of war. Decoding the meaning of this poem is, no doubt, an enlightening journey for knowing how humans had endured past tragedies.
The poem begins with a portrayal of a war-ridden landscape. It has impacted the environment in such a manner that everything has changed. There is nothing in which the speaker can find the sign of life. Wild beasts, flowers, and smoke have engaged nature bitterly. In between such an ambiance, the narrator somehow feels hopeless. He is one of the slaves chained there. The pain they are going through can be seen in the lines that start with the word “fire”. Their pessimism gets reflected in the last few lines. The message is that nothing is going to change. What will remain constant, is the suffering of humans, specifically blacks.
You can read the full poem here.
‘A Brief History of Hostility’ is 138 lines long. There is a combination of couplets and tercets. Some stanzas contain more than three sentences. So, a reader can say that there is no specific structure in this piece. It does not even follow a pattern or form. There are not many syllables in each line. It makes the lines shorter and makes the pace of the text faster. The transition between one line to another is quick and tightly packed. Such a structure reflects the state of a person’s mind who is in the middle of a war situation. In the overall text, there is not any specific rhyme scheme. Therefore, it is a free verse poem. Mostly, readers can find the use of iambic meter in it.
The first three couplets of ‘A Brief History of Hostility’ contains a biblical allusion. By the lines, “In the beginning/ there was the war./ The war said let there be war/ and there was war,” May alludes to the third verse of the Book of Genesis. These lines contain irony too. Readers can also say that the reference to “war” is a personification.
They can find an onomatopoeia in the line, “or bleated when brought down.” In the lines, “and the thump thump/ thump said drum” May uses a palilogy. The repetition of the word “thump” resonates with the beating of drums.
There is a simile in the line, “tastes like copper.” In the overall piece, readers come across several alliterations. One such example of the device can be found in the lines, “but with our bodies bound/ by the skin…” Another important device, metaphor, can be found in the usage of the phrase, “a sick wind.”
In the beginning
there was the war.
was a kind of music
and so was the beast.
The beginning is quite ironic. May uses a biblical verse to depict the horrors of war. He rewrites the phrase, “Let there be light” and compares “war” to the supreme lord of the universe, God. Like God said while his creation was ready, on the orders of a few men, “there was war.” It seems as if they are trying to imitate the creator.
They tried to bring peace. Once the war starts, it is hard to bring it. Due to this, people started to adapt to the situation. Now they try to feel a rhythm in destruction. To talk about it is a bit harsh. But, it is reality. Fire creates music in their mind. So, the poet ironically remarks it is the same case with the beasts. They too are driven by their base emotions. It is important to note here that, here “fire” seems to be a metaphor for the dark desires in the human mind.
The beast that roared
or bleated when brought down
was silent when skinned
but loud after the skin
said give us some more, said look
at the wild flowers our war plants
in a grove and grows
just for us.
The beast, a metaphorical reference to the cruel humans, who can express themselves while free. But, when they are brought down to reality, they become silent. The climax comes when the instrument they have created starts to torture them. To depict this, May uses imagery. According to him, a beast roars louder when it is “pulled taut over wood.”
When people hear someone’s groan, they take the sound like a kind of music. This line makes it clear that modern humans lack compassion and sympathy. In the following lines, the poet introduces an image of the thumping of drums. The sound resonates with the ambiance of impending war.
The beating drums can be taken as a warning of a bitter future waiting for the speaker. Using personification, May presents what the drum and the field remark. Hearing the drum’s anticipation, the field says that the war tastes like copper. It refers to some wildflowers planted nearby by the personified war. Those flowers symbolize cruelty and violence.
Outside sheets are pulling
this way and that.
Fields are smoke,
smoke is air.
but with our bodies bound
by the skin, my arc to his curve,
we are stalks that will bend
and bend and bend…
May continues to describe how war is changing the environment gradually. He depicts it from this section. According to the speaker, one can hear the pulling of metal sheets outside. Smoke is everywhere and it has filled the field as well as the sky.
The speaker of this piece is not alone. There can be seen a group of men who are waiting to be bent, knuckle to knuckle. It is not clear who they are and where they are staying. But, a reader will be able to sense who they are from the following lines.
Their porch is overrun with rope and shotgun. It means there is a preparation for war in their area. But, the soldiers, referred to as “hounds”, have not yet arrived. Meanwhile, they beat the drum and sing like nothing is happening outside. They are aware of the growing tension from the “rust-colored clay” and “fields of wild flowers.”
By the line, “Torches may come like fox paws…” it becomes clear that the poet is referring to the native Africans who were taken as slaves by the whites. The speaker compares the whites with foxes. They come to steal their hard-earned crop away. Nothing can be done against them. For this reason, the speaker confesses their powerlessness by saying, “we are stalks that will bend/ and bend and bend…” The use of polysyndeton is worth mentioning here.
fire for heat
fire for light
fire for casting figures on a dungeon wall
fire in the forge that folds steel like a flag
fire to curl worms like cigarette ash
fire to give them back to the earth
Now, in this section, the “fire” lines (lines starting with the word “fire”) depict the use of it for different purposes. It is used primarily for heat and light. The speaker thinks it also casts the figures on a dungeon wall. These figures belong to none other than the slaves.
They are like the shadows and the oppressors make them writhe in darkness. Like fire is used to keep the beasts at bay, they use the same tactic for keeping the blacks away from the course of development. The “fire”, acting as a symbol of oppression, finally destroys their lives. According to the poet, they torment them till they burn out totally.
This fire is used in several ways. Some use it to a siege, while others use it either to singe or roast meat. “To fuse rubber soles to collapsed crossbeams” fire comes into use. Likewise, Jamaal uses the “fire” as different symbols in the following lines. In the case of Gehenna or hell, it acts to torment the sinners. Whereas, for Dante and Fallujah, “fire” is a symbol of poetic inspiration.
When one orders to fire, it is a different concept. Besides, this is used to forge steel, kill worms, and cremating a dead body. In this section, May uses similes to hint at the hostile environment slaves were living in.
fire for ancient reasons: to call down rain
fire to catch it and turn it into steam
fire for churches
fire for his home
fire for her flag
fire for this sand, to coax it into glass
In ancient times, people held religious ceremonies to bring rain. Then the fire is used. They utilized it to store water and turn it into steam for running steam engines. If the church found any blasphemous books, they burnt them right away. Those who were radical in their thoughts were tied to a stake and put on fire.
The following lines quickly shift to the theme of war. According to the poet, fire is being used in smoke signals and shaping the parts of a gun such as a muzzle and a magazine. In the furnace, this element helps artisans shape metals.
To satisfy the fire God, Hephaestus a person has to use it for the pyre’s sake. While the slavers use it to torment the “quiet brown man.” Readers can sense this section is contrasting the religious with the worldly affairs. Besides, it keeps the room warm during winter, burns flags, and coax sand into glass.
fire to cure mirrors
fire to cure leeches
Fire to compose a nocturne of cinders
fire to make twine fall from bound wrists
fire to mark them all and bubble black
any flesh it touches as it frees
The flow of fiery lines doesn’t stop coming. It floods the rather with a variety of ideas. The clash and interconnection between ideas make one feel a little confused. May uses the word for manifold purposes. The main role of this symbol is to portray different faces of oppression.
In this section, the constructive qualities of this symbol are shown. The poet refers to its uses in curing mirrors and leeches. It helps a musician to compose “a nocturne of cinders.” While in the following lines, he shows how it is used in illuminating streets and as a fuel. In the line, “fire for the field hand’s fourth death”, there is a repetition of the “f” sound. It is an example of consonance.
They took the light from our eyes. Possessive.
Took the moisture from our throats. My arms,
cannot say I won’t forget to return in fall and
guess the names of the leaves before they change.
This section makes it clear that May refers to the suffering of the slaves. The speaker is one of them. He says the oppressors’ blow makes their lives heinous. They took the light of their eyes away as well as their throats’ moisture. Their torture makes the whole body of the speaker dry. It means that his body becomes lifeless for the torture. Those who like autumn, don’t have any feelings for those in suffering. They are busy appreciating the beauty in nature.
The speaker being tall was an obvious target for his “off-kilter limbs.” For his impairment of legs, he would fall either way. That’s why he thinks of accepting death in these lines, “I should get a/ to-the-death tattoo or metal ribbon of some sort.” The “metal ribbon” is a symbol of slavery.
The war took their freedom away as well as their time to pray. It left them dumber than the drones that cannot make a sound. For this reason, the speaker wants to be a part of this war and lament mechanically.
He requests the oppressors to make a man-shaped gate for them. If he stands straight he can enter through it. Otherwise, there is no way to return. He does not want to make promises regarding his return in the coming fall. As death won’t allow him to come back and “guess the names of the leaves before they change.”
The war said bring us your dead
and we died. The people said music
and bending flower, so we sang ballads
Aren’t graveyards and battlefields
our most efficient gardens?
Journeys begin there too if the flowers are taken
In this section, the speaker says in the war many of them died. Some asked them to sing. So, they followed the order mechanically and sang ballads in churches and fruit markets. This is not any ordinary song. It is a requiem sung during a death ceremony. To depict the shortness of life, the poet uses a metaphor of a comet’s tail disappearing into the atmosphere.
Bereft men sang such songs for the loss of their family members. In the following line, the speaker imagines himself dead. He can visualize being carried to the “forgetting city” of death “between the cold iron gates.”
The field said soil becomes rich wherever they fall. The dead bodies lying underneath make the ground fertile. May uses this concept ironically.
He asks a rhetorical question in the next lines. Whether graveyards and battlefields are the most efficient gardens, is the question the readers have to answer.
into account, and shouldn’t we always
take the flowers into account? Bring them to us.
We’ll come back to you. Peace will come to you
straighten your suit,
and place fresh flowers
on all our muddy graves.
Using an enjambment, May connects the last line of the previous section with the first line of this section. According to him, the journey of the flowers, a metaphorical reference to the war victims, should be taken into account. Besides, the bodies being assimilated in the soil, become a part of nature. For this reason, it is a part of the flower too. In the next lines, “Bring them to us./ We’ll come back to you,” the poet refers to this cycle.
The speaker is of the view that peace will come one day like the way one wants. It can come in any form as the poet says, “as a rosewood-colored road paver/ in your grandmother’s town, as a trench/ scraped into canvas…”
He compares love to a trowel that plants at the same time used to uproot. And, tomorrow is a tornado. None can say what is coming. In the case of war, it is a “sick wind.” It makes one aware of the fact that he or she has to see many deaths in the upcoming days. That’s why one should be ready to place fresh flowers on all their muddy graves.
‘A Brief History of Hostility’ appears in Jamaal May’s poetry collection “The Big Book of Exit Strategies”. It was published in 2016. May’s poem is often regarded as one of the best poems to read in black history month. He captured a spot in the Best American Poetry anthology from 2014 for his innovative way of expression. His famous works include “The God engine: poems,” “The whetting of teeth: and other poems,” and “Hum”. May’s debut book, “Hum” was published in 2014 and favorably reviewed by publishers.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly revolve around the themes present in May’s poem.
- If We Must Die by Claude McKay – This poem is addressed to the black community advocating for courage and the will to stand against oppression. Explore other poems of Clause McKay.
- Mississipi by Aimé Césaire – This poem signifies the importance of perseverance and strength to face any kind of torment.
- Insensibility by Wilfred Owen – Owen, one of the best British wartime poets, depicts the trauma of warfare and the anger of the traumatized in this poem. Explore more Wilfred Owen poems.
- A Nameless Grave by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – This poem describes the poet’s response to the horrific events of the war. Read more poetry of Longfellow.