I Have Never Wanted To Garden, Eat Fruit, & Talk Openly About Our Shared Mortality More: On Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015)
Pardon the jokey title of this review. It’s taken me a long time to order my thoughts about Ross Gay’s third book because this book has so thoroughly, gorgeously un-ordered me, un-made my habitual categorizations. In fact, the title is quite serious. For someone who prefers, no, needs urban settings and the indoors, I feel overtaken by a desire to grow my own food, to dive into the dirt and buzz, to tumble out of doors with strangers, be they human, plant, or insect. Tumbling strangers, who through their tangling and tasting, become comrades, correspondents, intimates, friends, good friends and “good racket”—in his closing acknowledgments, Ross Gay thanks the Bloomington Community Orchard “which is the ground from which so many of these poems grow.” You could say the whole collection is a giant juicy thank you to that community orchard, that family of a garden, garden of a family.
Gardens are an inherent contradiction: at once natural and cultivated, wild and ordered, unpredictable and yet perhaps more steadily, deeply attuned to the seasons than we are. Ross Gay taps into this contradiction, while reveling in a few more, including the book’s central question: How can we experience joy, really dig into the fruit and flesh of giddy togetherness, while also fully recognizing the inevitable losses, immense griefs?
We can try practicing the kind of unabashed gratitude that Ross Gay, yes, catalogues, and examines, and dances into, reinvents, practices, poem by poem. We can thank the present moment for once again offering us something, say, “a meadow lit by torches/of cardinal blooms” or “a hummingbird…its heart’s frenzy,/its fleet/nectar-questing song.” We can thank the past, memories of friends like “Don in his kindness abundant and floral” who loved “his Destiny’s Child tune about survival.” We can thank our attempts, and then our failures to transform the tragedy of a friend’s death into “some kind of honey”.
“Unabashed” does not always mean “happy”; gratitude does not always come easily. To practice this kind of thanking means an openness to the difficult memories, the botched translations, the imperfect gardens. The work still, yet, always to be done. Sometimes the most the speaker in these poems can do is refasten a friend’s “scarf and [pull] his wool overcoat snug,/weeping and tugging down his furry Russian cap.” Sometimes the most we can hope for is “windows through which light/pours to wash clean and make a touch less awful/what forever otherwise will hurt.” But for that hope to live, we have to be able to notice and cherish those small tender details, to ask, what kind of overcoat was it? What does the light do?
Stand-out poems include the heartbreaking “Spoon” (which I just quoted from quite a bit), the dizzying “Sharing with the Ants”, and the one-two joy-punch of the title poem (“thank you what in us rackets glad,/what gladrackets us”), then the last poem (“to become the frilly skirts/of the pear which wind-blown heave/the syrupy smell of semen/and oh the joy I will be”). In many of these poems, Gay uses a long, sometimes deliberately convoluted, over-stretched line, and for the most part, uses it to astonishing effect. At times (like in the 12-pager “The Opening”) I did wonder if a shorter line or less torqued syntax could give the reader a quieter moment to pause and take in the language. Mainly, though, I found my self/breath enlarged and enlivened, by Gay’s impressively acrobatic yet intimately conversational tongue.
If Ross Gay’s first book (Against Which) was mainly familial, grieving the loss of a father, and his second (Bringing the Shovel Down) was societal, critiquing racialized and state-sponsored violence, then his third collection is decidedly communal—celebrating the community that people make with each other, with the land and the light, with our dead, with the ants, “our mouths sugared/and shining both of us/twirling beneath the fig’s/seeds spinning like a newly/discovered galaxy/that’s been there forever.”