Ross Gay is the author three books of poetry: Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down, and, most recently, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. The following book review concerns Ross Gay’s latest collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, February 2015).
By Claire Schwartz
Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.
The kingdom of touching;
The touches of disappearing, things.
–Aracelis Girmay, ‘Elegy’
There are no elegies in Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. There are, of course, odes: “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” “Ode to the Flute,” “Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes,” “Ode to Drinking Water from My Hands”—not to mention the other poems not bearing the label, but nonetheless awash with gratitude. Crocuses and bees and bagpipes and ‘the quick and gentle flocking / of men to the old lady falling down’ are sanctified by the brush and burrow of thankfulness. As their titles make clear, Gay’s odes dwell in the ordinary, but in the poems’ vast ecologies, the quotidian surges toward the cosmological. The act of buttoning and unbuttoning a shirt gives rise to a meditation on the hand’s other gentlest pursuits: these same fingers securing the garment as those with which ‘I will/one day close my mother’s eyes’ and give ‘the raft…/to the clumsy spider,’ so that as the slim poem slips to a close—‘we practice like this…/sliding the bones home’—there is a conflation between the bones of the shirt and the bones of the body, between the rehearsal and the act. The tenderness of bringing breath to language is breath leaving the body. The kingdom of touching.
Of all the strings thrummed by the thumb of Gay’s language, it is Girmay’s ‘Elegy’ that I can’t stop hearing. Perhaps this is no surprise. “Perhaps,” the poet Elizabeth Alexander writes in her memoir The Light of the World, “tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.” If there is no grief without love, neither is there love without grief. That the body exists in time means all acts of love are a tending for loss. In poetic terms: the elegy and ode are twinned. But where the elegy in its classical form seeks to grant consolation, the ode is a ritual of awe; gratitude, an ethic of paying attention that can offer respite without setting to rest. ‘[M]y mother’s sadness…/…/a form of gratitude’ the speaker in ‘Ending the Estrangement’ realizes, a sentiment reprised more capaciously in ‘The Opening’: ‘…—just sadness. Which is to say, / in other words, just being alive.’
Often, life insists its blooming way into the world. In the collection’s opening poem, ‘To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,’ the tree, in its gorgeous and steadfast vitality, gathers the strangers who have come to gather its fruit. ‘[T]he tree which everyone knows / cannot grow this far north / being Mediterranean’ summons the
oldest countries of my
body where I ate my first fig
from the hand of a man who escaped his country
by swimming through the night
In their unlikely acts of survival, the tree and the man nourish new comings together—one of which is the metaphor that assembles them in language. The metaphors in Catalog do not flatten to equality; rather, Gay’s poems mobilize the metaphorical because this, like an improbable fig tree in the middle of Philadelphia, is how language stretches to yoke unlikely relations.
But that these poems compost—which is to say, make grow with loss—does not mean that all death is natural. The stunning poem ‘Spoon,’ twelve pages of long-lined couplets, is notably not an ode. Unlike in ‘To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,’ where the tree’s rooted song exceeds rational knowledge about what can and cannot grow, in ‘Spoon’ the history of racial violence suffuses the landscape together with the body’s geography. ‘This is Indiana where I am really not from, where, // for years, Negroes weren’t even allowed entry,’ the speaker tells us. The poem—dedicated to Don Belton, the black gay writer and Indiana University professor, who was murdered in 2009 by Michael Griffin, a young white man—maps the limits of language, as the titular object refuses to yield to the province of poetry:
I swore when I got into this poem I would convert
this sorrow into some kind of honey with little musics
I can sometimes make with these scribbled artifacts
of our desolation. I can’t even make a metaphor
of my reflection upside down and barely visible
in the spoon…
The speaker’s language falls short; nothing now can churn the pain to sweetness. This poem for Belton cannot sing with him. If there is music here, it is not culled from the all-too-thinkable violence, but from the tenderness of the two men who forged another way, as they ‘walked arm in arm // through our small neighborhood.’ It is a small song hemmed in minors: ‘is this ok, [Don] asked,’ before hooking his arm in his friend’s, ‘knowing mostly / how dense and sharp the dumb fear // of mostly straight boys can be.’ The touches of disappearing, things.
Or, perhaps the song is in the poet’s singing of no-song, an I that makes music of its edges. Cussing and jokes alongside unblinking sincerity forge the modulating intimacy of a voice at work. Catalog collects achingly precise observations legible to classical lyric lexicons; elsewhere the speaker grasps at open-ended colloquialisms such as ‘somehow’ and ‘sort of.’ In these latter moments the I cedes not only to the vastness of gratitude, but also to its own inability to set language to experience. It’s a gesture that inflects not only the scope—casting the poem into the immense unknown—but also the voice. The I in Catalog is not omnipresent, not perfect. Gay’s is an embodied I contoured by awe and echo and, in the face of the infinities of love or death, inevitable inadequacy. His speakers give us the absolute human tenderness of trying anyway. The heavily enjambed lines create a momentum and instability, tumbling the reader through language and sowing the saplings of meanings that might become; the iterated ambitions—‘a small final song,’ ‘little musics’ ‘the small song in my chest’—not so much modest in scale as a calling for us to come close, to still ourselves and listen.
In her Nobel lecture, Toni Morrison calls for a vital language ‘[whose] force, [whose] felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.’ Catalog is this living word. The often-short lines hold us in a space where breath exceeds the reach of language, where the body’s life force gathers at the brink of the speakable. Gay’s poems bevel the edges of words to forge a precarious perch from where we might look out onto an elsewhere. His are poems rooted in gratitude the way that June Jordan’s question ‘Where is the love?’ is not a call to bury the act of witness, but an insistence on living not patterned by white supremacist blueprints. ‘It was the week after the Harlem Riot of 1964…that I realized I was now filled with hatred for everything and everyone white,” Jordan writes. “Almost simultaneously it came to me that this condition, if it lasted, would mean I had lost the point: not to resemble my enemies, not to dwarf my world, not to lose my willingness and ability to love.” Gay’s poems live in the intimate and vast world with all the brave love of willingness. Their wild gratitude (to borrow a phrase from Edward Hirsch) means that possession buckles as a metric of relation. The title poem shapes something sweeter, riper, that stretches over the collection. ‘Take this bowl of blackberries from the garden,’ the speaker offers. ‘The sun has made them warm. / I picked them just for you.’ Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude stakes itself in the wildness, the rootedness, the absolute and absolutely contingent that makes sacred this gathering, this ground.
CLAIRE SCHWARTZ is a PhD candidate in African American American Studies and American Studies at Yale. Her research focuses on urban space at the intersections of contemporary Afrodiasporic poetry and visual arts. Claire’s poetry has