James Davis May

James Davis May is the author of two poetry collections, Unquiet Things (Louisiana State University Press, 2016), and Unusually Grand Ideas (Louisiana State University Press, 2023).

May has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Originally from Pittsburgh, he now lives in Macon, Georgia, where he directs the creative writing program at Mercer University.

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Portrait of the Self as Skunk Cabbage


Maybe it's like those hard
red rubbery spathes
that in early spring—
make that late winter—
create their own heat
and halo themselves
with soil wet
from the snow they melt,
a few degrees of advantage
the plant makes for itself,
like its putrid odor: something
that almost survived the winter
but didn't, convincing
enough to court the thawed-
out insects, those first
mindless urges of life.
Dumb from winter's boredom,
my brother and I
trudged the frost-crusted creek mud
in the woods behind our house
to where the stems
unfolded a too-bright green
we hated because it was ugly,
reminded us of nothing
but itself and thus
reminded us of ourselves.
A presence we wanted gone.
So we slashed it down
with hockey sticks—
each gash releasing the oils
that made those rancid leaves
more rancid. Each year,
the same ritual, the same
erasure of something
that we didn't know
we couldn't erase.
The plant, I found out
years later, grows downward:
the roots pull the stem
deeper into the soil, too deep,
a gardener told me,
to kill it even if you wanted to.


--from Unquiet Things (LSU Press, 2016)