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Literary Life

Ross Gay Finds the Right Ground at the Radcliffe Institute

2.29.16

“The gratitude I’m thinking of,” Gay said, “is largely about the ways we make each other possible.”

“The gratitude I’m thinking of,” Gay said, “is largely about the ways we make each other possible.”
Photograph by Kevin Grady/Courtesy of Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study


“The gratitude I’m thinking of,” Gay said, “is largely about the ways we make each other possible.”
Photograph by Kevin Grady/Courtesy of Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

By the end of the hour, Ross Gay had people all but swaying in the aisles. A poet and professor at Indiana University whose 2015 collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, was a National Book Award finalist, Gay is a Bate Fellow this year at the Radcliffe Institute. [Update: on March 17 Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.] And on a Wednesday evening in mid February, four dozen people filled up a room at Fay House in Radcliffe Yard to hear him speak.

It was scheduled to be a lecture on the “Black Georgics,” Gay’s work-in-progress (barely begun, he confessed later), conceived as a black writer’s response to Virgil’s book-length agricultural poem. But Gay had something else on his mind that night. Last fall he gave an interview to Poetry magazine, and the interviewer, Kyla Marshell—a friend and a fellow member of the Cave Canem group of African-American poets—had asked him about all the flowers in his book. By turns euphoric, elegiac, or edgy, and sometimes all those things at once, the poems in Catalog wind a tight orbit around his garden back in Bloomington: its fruit trees and honeybees and universe of flowers. This is the emotional and imaginative center that the book returns to again and again. He describes pear blooms “howling forth their pungence,” ants “rasping their tongues / across the peonies’ sap,” and cherry tomatoes “like ornaments / on a drunken Christmas tree.” In the book’s title poem, the speaker stumbles into the garden, where

the Juneberry’s flowers had burst open
like the bells of French horns, the lily
my mother and I planted oozed into the air,
the bazillion ants labored in their earthen workshops
below, the collard greens waved in the wind
like the sails of ships, and the wasps
swam in the mint bloom’s viscous swill.

In the Poetry interview, Marshell asked Gay about all that. “Even though you do talk about things related to race,” she said, “I wondered if perhaps you were resisting all the things you could talk about.” In other words, Gay paraphrased for the crowd at Fay House, “What are you resisting in your book of flowers, black man?”

Responding to Marshell last fall, he’d talked abstractly about the book’s “full-on-ness” and its openness to love and vulnerability. But that was only part of the answer, a “bullshit” dodge, he’d decided later; now he wanted to try again. And so he did, sitting on a stool in front of the Sheerr Room stage, addressing the audience like friends and intimates as he read an essay—at times it sounded more like a poem, or a prayer—that had come pouring out of him days earlier.

The gratitude of the book’s title, he explained, is not the easy kind. Not “I’m so grateful for my Lexus,” he said, but “how lucky to have been allowed to care for your dying father after years of hardly being able to talk to each other.” (Gay’s grief after his father’s death is a central thread weaving through Catalog.) How lucky to have a recording of a murdered friend’s voice, telling Gay, “I love you.” Or to have answered a phone call from an unfamiliar number and hear, on the other end of the line, another friend, calling from the psych ward after a suicide attempt. “How lucky to have done a beautiful thing in your life,” he said, “to have loved something, to have touched with your hands this earth, to have been loved, to have escaped.”

And the flowers? A way of seeing, he said. “How you see or what you see depends on the ground”—literal as well as figurative—the land and the dirt, but also “what holds us, what we walk on, what we fall onto, what we leap from.” And the ground implied in Marshell’s question and others like it, Gay continued, as an uneasy silence crept over the audience, is one in which “black people are not actually people. And sometimes it feels that if America grants that we are people, that it also imagines that our natural condition is pain, is suffering, is turmoil, is indignity, is death.” African-American suffering and death is “big business,” Gay clipped, his voice tightening. “All kinds of people dance to it…fall in love to it. People hold hands in darkened theaters to it…grow up to it, feel nostalgic for it. ‘It’s the best TV series of all time! It’s got the best beat!’”

Gay refuses that notion. “They would like us to believe,” he said, “as I sometimes believe while watching Walter Scott being shot again and again on the news, watching Tamir Rice being murdered again and again, that our natural condition, our ground, is pain.” But no. For him, the ground is something else: “our necessary lives,” full of not only loss, sorrow, violence, and pain, but also “delight, silliness, raucous laughter, care.” And flowers.

To bring home that point, Gay offered up a brief, piercing poem he wrote about Eric Garner, whose death in 2014 at the hands of police spawned the protest chant “I can’t breathe” and helped launch a wave of demonstrations that coalesced into the Black Lives Matter movement. Called “A Small Needful Fact,” the poem (which is not a part of Catalog) recalls Garner’s onetime employment with the New York City horticultural department and imagines the plants he might have tended there and how they might still continue to grow and “do what such plants do,”

like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

“And so, Kyla,” Gay concluded, addressing Marshell in absentia, “this book of flowers by a black man…was both utterly conscious—I knew what I was and wasn’t saying and what perhaps I’m expected to be saying—and it was me just minding my business, talking about my life.” He paused, looked up. “My life.”

When he fell silent, there were audible sniffles in the audience. And then applause. One woman reached into her purse for a tissue. Never losing his smile, Gay asked if he could read one last thing. Was there time? Yes. And so he dived into “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” a wild, wandering, wide-open poem that careens across 12 pages of joy and pain and wonder. It ends on these lines:

… what do you think
this singing and shuddering is,
what this screaming and reaching and dancing
and crying is, other than loving
what every second goes away?
Goodbye, I mean to say.
And thank you. Every day.

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