August 26 – Jamaal May “There are birds here”

Monday, August 26, 2019

“I am impressed by the level of commitment to the mission and to the city of Detroit that exists at the University.”  (Dr. Punsalan-Manlimos)

Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos and her family met and mingled with c. 125 women, men and children in the Jesuit courtyard last evening as we gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Si Hendry’s Jesuit life.   Such an apt beginning to her time here as “Assistant to the President for Mission Integration”:  several generations of the life-blood of faculty and staff and neighbors unmistakably living out what Dr. Punsalan-Manlimos identified in her job interview as a defining quality of Detroit Mercy, “the level of commitment to the mission and to the city of Detroit.”

Catherine and I now hold one thing uniquely in common; to date we are the only two to have held this position at Detroit Mercy.  No surprise then, that when searching for a strong Detroit poem to honor her coming, I should settle on Jamaal May, who grew up in our neighborhood and who lives and breathes the life of our city, perhaps nowhere more powerfully than in his “There are birds here.”

Best to read the poem out loud, with pauses, several times.

Catherine, welcome to the university.


john sj

For Detroit

There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
between buildings
and buildings. No.
The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
his neighborhood is not like a war zone.
I am trying to say
his neighborhood
is as tattered and feathered
as anything else,
as shadow pierced by sun
and light parted
by shadow-dance as anything else,
but they won’t stop saying
how lovely the ruins,
how ruined the lovely
children must be in that birdless city.

Jamaal May, “There Are Birds Here” from The Big Book of Exit Strategies.
Copyright © 2016 by Jamaal May. Reprinted by permission of Alice James Books.

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