May 17, 2016

Ross Gay’s Unfolding Understanding of Unabashed Gratitude

A formidable contemporary poet, Ross Gay earned his BA from Lafayette College, received his MFA in poetry at Sarah Lawrence, and was granted a PhD in American literature from Temple University. Gay is a founding editor of the online sports magazine Some Call It Ballin’ and an active editor of the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press. Aside from teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington, Gay also acts as a board member for the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project.

As the author of three poetry collections, Against Which (2006), Bringing the Shovel Down (2011), and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015), Ross Gay has already garnered a remarkable record of achievements and recognition. Gay received grants from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and fellowships from both the Guggenheim Foundation and the Radcliffe Institute and is a former Cave Canem Workshop fellow and Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference scholar. This past April, Claremont Graduate School awarded Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award designed to acknowledge a mid-career poet who is reaching new heights of poetic excellence.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a compelling contemplative celebration, a quietly intense and refreshingly humble exploration of the connectivity between self, family, and community. In certain moments, Gay’s poems act as knowing smiles and slow, solemn nods; at others, his verses are instead wry winks. But throughout this subtle collection, the poet portrays the simple but layered experience of love, the incredible wonder of innocence, and the personal crumbling that can occur under the harsh pressure of experience. His wistful writings are earthy, pulpy, and blooming, wild and winding tendrils of words that center on both the nurturance needed for sheer survival and the overflowing sustenance found in everyday reality. Gay blesses the quotidian with a tone of mature joyfulness, elevating the ordinary to the realm of the sublime with his deft poetic treatment.

Against Which cover

But Ross Gay did not achieve this conveyed sense of unabashed gratitude that embraces both the pleasures and hardships of existence overnight. In his earliest collection, Against Which, the poet instead presents life’s hope and despair as divided, as oppositional. “It Starts At Birth” begins by positioning a “newborn railing” in conflict with the awaiting woes of a life’s cycle. The poem then becomes an enumeration of life’s grime “against which” its glories are juxtaposed: “the dazzle / of gold-threaded embroidery inside / the hangman’s mask…the blossom / of blood staining the ballerina’s toe-shoes, / and the wet eyes of the dog whose lungs are muscled with tumors” (7). Gay insists that like this newborn, our own railings against the horrors inherent in existence make us both “impossible, / golden” and “longing, gone” (8). And in “Thank You,” Gay urges his readers that despite the fact that “all you love will turn to dust…do not raise your fist. Do not raise / your small voice against it” (71). He recommends that we “Instead…say only, thank you” (71). Here Gay recommends gratitude in spite of life’s struggles, whereas his later verses call for an appreciation of both the lighter and darker aspects of reality.

In Ross Gay’s second collection of poetry, Bringing the Shovel Down, the poetic distance between life’s grandeur and destruction has dramatically increased. Interestingly, in the titular poem and its echo, Gay presents a ghastly childhood episode and its revised, restorative version to depict the alternate sides of existence’s coin. The poet offers these disparate glimpses as two severed, but mirrored, realities. “Bringing the Shovel Down” details the ignorant, and therefore innocent, murder of a neighborhood mutt. “Max whimpers, / and the boy sees a wolf where stands this ratty / and sad and groveling dog,” and due to this miscomprehension “beneath these very stars / the boy brings the shovel down / until Max’s hind legs stop twitching and his left ear folds into itself” (8). An innocent, and innocence, is slaughtered as the boy fails to truly see his supposed opponent.

Bringing the Shovel Down cover

Yet in “Again,” the canine’s, and consequently the unnamed boy’s, fate is reworked: “Max catches the gaze of the boy who sees, / at last, the raw skin on the dog’s flanks, the quiver / of his spindly legs” (60). In this retelling, the once confused child and domesticated, aging beast manage to find a conciliatory and healing moment of transspecies understanding: “and bringing the shovel down / he bends to lift the meat to Max’s toothless mouth” (60). What was once a wolf in the boy’s untrained eyes melts to reveal a decrepit mongrel, harmless and deserving of mercy in place of violence. But the poet portrays this positive transformative encounter between boy and beast as an echoed event entirely divorced from its blood-drenched original.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude cover

What makes Ross Gay’s eponymous poem from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude all the more stunning is its co-mingling of appreciation for life’s joys and sorrows. Through the eye of Gay’s matured poetic lens, even the pain of reality becomes important. The poet himself confesses: “I want so badly to rub the sponge of gratitude / over every last thing [;]” his celebration song therefore employs “the whole rusty brass band of gratitude” (93, 82). Alongside lines praising the beauty of robins and orchards, the buzz of bees and the brush of blooms, Gay also thanks the universe “for not taking my pal when the engine / of his mind dragged him / to swig fistfuls of Xanax…[and] for taking my father a few years after his father went down” (84). After blessing the resilience of a heart surgery survivor, “the pacemaker’s scar / grinning across his chest,” and admiring “the quick and gentle flocking / of men to the old lady falling down,” the poet confronts the relic of a dead companion with gratefulness: “And thank you the baggie of dreadlocks I found in a drawer / while washing and folding the clothes of our murdered friend”(87, 89). “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” like the poetry collection bearing its name, is a sprawling text of thankfulness in which even the harsher portions of existence are reforged as part of the poet’s personal prayer of appreciation. The work reflects Gay’s steadfast refusal to ignore reality’s agonies and his stubborn choice to privilege the thrum of life in its entirety. It calls for gratitude that envelopes both the “singing” and “shuddering” inherent in the act of living, for “what do you think / this singing and shuddering is…other than loving / what every second goes away?” (93).

Since 1993, through the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Claremont Graduate University has been honoring poets in the middle of their careers who have managed to surpass their beginning promise and carve out new and captivating creative territory. Ross Gay is definitely a perfect recipient of such acknowledgment. Grafted onto his already breathtaking command of poetic language, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude displays his evolving exploration of and appreciation for all of life’s complexities, its interrelated triumphs and defeats. This reader, for one, is deeply grateful for Gay’s body of work and is delighted to await further developments in his artistic output.

—Brock Rustin