Ross Gay’s third poetry collection, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, is currently in the running for the $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, and last year was a finalist for the National Book Award and the NAACP Image Award. And in a matter of days, he’ll be reading at Literati.
Gay’s writing is vital. I return to certain poems of his, certain essays, again and again. He’s a poet who loves nature, bees, flowers, and vegetable gardens, but I find the beauty of his work in its reckoning, in squaring the order of his garden with the chaos of trauma and loss: his layered reflections on self and society while nervously tending bees the morning after a racist encounter with a police officer, for example, in his essay for The Sun, “Some Thoughts on Mercy”:
It seems to me that part of my reason for writing this — for revealing my own fear and sorrow, my own paranoia and self-incrimination and shame — is to say, Look how I’ve been made by this. To have, perhaps, mercy on myself. When we have mercy, deep and abiding change might happen. The corrupt imagination might become visible. Inequalities might become visible. Violence might become visible. Terror might become visible. And the things we’ve been doing to each other, despite the fact that we don’t want to do such things to each other, might become visible.
If we don’t, we will all remain phantoms — and, as it turns out, it’s hard for phantoms to care for one another, let alone love one another. And it’s easy for phantoms to hurt one another. So when the cop and I met that night, how could he possibly have seen the real me for all the stories and fantasies that have been heaped on my body, and the bodies of those like me, for centuries? And how could I see him?
A year after the killing of Eric Garner, Ross Gay wrote an ode to the slain man, “A Small Needful Fact:”
A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
You can listen to the poet read “A Small Needful Fact” aloud here.
Mercy, sorrow, sunlight, gratitude, air: plucked away from Gay’s lines, given as summary, these concepts might seem simple, or even flatly, foolishly earnest. But there’s nothing “small,” flat, or naive about Gay’s work here. This is needful stuff. And there’s joy here too, an honoring of “small and necessary creatures,” the sensory generosity of imagined gentleness and of sweet, earthy smells. Gay’s mind is fierce, devoted, and brilliant, relentless and tough, as his work approaches the complexities of suffering, as it studies a naturally-occurring detail, and as it celebrates and casts a light on a lost life. When asked about his poem for Eric Garner, Ross Gay’s humility and gratitude work as a kind of immense creative force:
“What that poem, I think, is trying to do is to say, there’s this beautiful life, which is both the sorrow and the thing that needs to be loved.”
In an interview for the Los Angeles Times, interviewer Abigail Licard asked Ross Gay about the title of his third book of poetry:
Any expression of “unabashed gratitude” seems an anomaly in today’s highly cynical and ironic age. To what extent was this departure intentional as a form of, say, resistance?
Here’s how he responded:
“Resistance” is not the word I would use. It just struck me that it would be useful for someone to write a catalog of unabashed gratitude as a way to publicly imagine what it means for a person to be adamantly in love with his life. I wanted to realize joy as a fundamental aspect of our lives and practice it as a discipline. Joy, at least the way I understand it, comes from the realization that we’re all going to die. So as a kind of rigorous holding of one’s life, joy becomes the capacity to train our gaze on many things so that what we see includes what’s terrible but also what’s wonderful and beautiful.
We are honored to host Ross Gay at Literati on March 11th, as the keynote reader for the Voices of the Middle West Literary Conference. We hope to see you there.