Unusually Grand Ideas

February 2023

In his second poetry collection, James Davis May writes candidly about clinical depression and the complications it brings to marriage and fatherhood. Though titled after one of the more poetic side effects of antidepressants, Unusually Grand Ideas ultimately discovers that the most audacious ideas of all are those that lead us back to wonder and love. These discoveries do not come easy. At times, the darkness May describes is overwhelming, as when he compares experiencing a depressive episode to being “an unskilled swimmer who’s gone /out too far and pauses to gauge the distance / he knows is likely to kill him.” Through that distance, though, he still hears “voices he loves wondering where he is.” It’s these voices of family that help May navigate the way toward healing, where he sees “not just beauty… but its excess” and “the happiness [he] should have lost” but didn’t.


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Unquiet Things (2016)

Unquiet Things: Poems by James Davis May

While grounded in wonder and the impulse to praise, the poems in James Davis May’s debut collection, Unquiet Things, unflinchingly test themselves against skepticism, violence, and death in order to say something meaningful and lasting about human experience. In “The Reddened Flower, The Erotic Bird,” the poem which opens the book, May contemplates our astonishment with the natural world, asking whether our experiences with nature serve as “stand-ins, almost, / for grace,” but in the final lines he recognizes that “some cynicism” prevents him from claiming that our descriptions of those experiences prove that “we love, and are surprised by, the world.” Throughout this collection, May seeks to transcend that cynicism, turning often to the landscapes of North Georgia, his native Pittsburgh, and Eastern Europe, as well as to his literary models Czeslaw Milosz and Samuel Taylor Coleridge for guidance.

Praise for Unquiet Things, runner-up for the Georgia Author of the Year in Poetry Award and finalist for the 2018 Poets’ Prize:

“The late Pulitzer Prize-wining poet Claudia Emerson chose Unquiet Things as the second volume in her poetry series. Emerson’s taste in poetry was impeccable and this collection is extraordinary: intimate and wide-ranging, sweet as air and tough as leather, humorous and deadly serious. I was stunned by it. I held my breath. Line after line is thoughtful, true, enlightening, tender, or terrifying. Jim May is very, very smart and—for a masterful moment—he locates a pinpoint balance between life and death.”
— Kelly Cherry

“This is poetry of the quotidian. James Davis May knows how to distill verses from the ungracious, from the shapeless, suburban. We learn from Unquiet Things how modern alchemy works. We find here all kinds of small and big dramas, gaffes and mishaps, but also love—and after a while we understand that there’s no alchemy without love.”
— Adam Zagajewski

“In a world of cynicism and irony, finding a poet like James Davis May, a poet who is still able to experience awe in his contact with the world, is a gift beyond measure. James Davis May is a poet unafraid to face the large mysteries, unafraid to express sincerely his astonishment at things other people bypass every day without really noticing.  This is a book that will wake us up to the real world and the miracles therein.  This young writer is certain to become an important voice in American poetry. Unquiet Things rests comfortably among the finest 2 or 3 first books I’ve seen in the last twenty or so years.”
— David Bottoms

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Press for Unquiet Things:
Review by Michael Levan in American Microreviews
Review by Kali Lightfoot in Green Mountains Review
Interview with Emily Schulten in Glass: A Journal of Poetry

James Davis May