Ross Gay’s ‘Unabashed Gratitude’ surges with life

On a spring night in Bloomington, Indiana, Ross Gay is planting young lettuces. Winter has hung on so long, a warm evening feels new — to stand barefoot in a troweled furrow with the air smelling of earth and stems, and peels in the compost pile.

As he walks in his garden, planning onions and potatoes, purple or red or gold, he is standing near the plum trees where he set some of his father’s ashes when he dug the earth to put in the bare-root saplings,

“… poured some of him in the planting holes
and he dove in glad for the robust air.”

He tells the story in burial, a poem in his third and most recent book, catalog of unabashed gratitude, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. And he shares work from the book when he comes to read at Bennington College in their Poetry at Bennington spring series.

Life and vigor often run alongside forces that threaten them, in his writing — like the juice of plums and the death of someone he loves.

“To feel gratitude is to acknowledge the pain,” he said, talking by phone from Bloomington.

In his catalog his father is dancing, coming home at the end of a long late shift to share hot wings with him, and lying in a hospital bed. Gay’s friend Don is eating sweet potato biscuits out of the pan as they talk in the kitchen, listening to Nina Simone and walking arm in arm down the block and past the graveyard, not long before he was murdered.

In odes to buttoning and unbuttoning his shirt and drinking water from his hands, Gay is talking about love and the loss of people he loves, and the anger and fear and tiredness he feels as a black man in this country.

“It is a corruption of the imagination,” he writes in an essay, Some Thoughts on Mercy, as he traces the way it feels to live in a city or a world where many people accuse, where they are hostile, where fear is constant and people die. They are shot. They collapse from illness and exhaustion.

The voice speaking in his poems cultivates imagination as he cultivates bee hives. That storyteller is alive in his mind and body as he is in his garden, and in his family, and in the touch of the woman he loves.

Gay chose the title of the book to hold open thankfulness. He chose it “to acknowledge moving forward, understanding the fullness of our lives,” he said. “They are complex and rich. Birds are singing outside my window right now, and that’s wonderful, and people I love are in pain. Every day.”

Strength in joy

He writes the title poem in the present tense, and it flows with textures and smells and colors and movement. He opens a hive, and bees cling together who did not survive the winter. Gardeners sweat through their shirts and horses buck across a field, and rank spent grains feed the soil and all that grows.

“… thank you knitbone and sweetgrass and sunchoke
and false indigo whose petals stammered apart
by bumblebees good lord please give me a minute…”

He chooses to practice joy in his writing and in his life, he said. Joy is important for health and strength of mind.

“To exalt what we love, what we adore — adult joy accounts for, is even made by suffering.”

And in that understanding of life and pain, people can reach out to one another.

“There’s something in terms of the discipline of it, a necessity,” he said. “It feels to me that understanding of the richness of human experience contains profound sorrow, and it is a way we are connected to people. As I understand, as I relate to you, as I know you are experiencing pain and sorrow, and will experience it, and you will die … a tenderness comes from that practice.”

Reaching Bennington

His work has touched people powerfully. Michael Dumanis, the director of poetry at Bennington and the curator of this spring’s poetry series, first fell into Gay’s work years ago in a bookstore in Cleveland, Ohio. He took Gay’s first book, Against Which, off the shelf and stood amazed.

He remembers his excitement as he read — individual words he wanted to dive into, ideas brought together that shook him with the strength of his feeling, and the clarity and freshness and perspective in the lines.

He remembers calling a close friend who might have met Gay and saying tell me about him — I can’t believe these poems I’m reading.

They have stayed with him, years later. Scenes and images come vividly: Two bikers, two large, heavyset men, held each other outside a hospital, and a man driving by swerved across the road as he felt that clutch. Dumanis read the shooting of a teenager from the bullet’s point of view.

“It’s strong,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

Students and professors at Bennington and visiting poets feel the same way.

As he talks with his classes, Dumanis hears anticipation for Gay’s visit, and his name resurfaces in conversations.

Dumanis’ colleague and awardwinning poet Phillip B. Williams has taught Gay’s work. Monica Youn celebrated his poetry when she visited this winter to read her own, and Gabriele Calvocoressi, who spoke last fall, is his friend.

They warm to his intimacy and intensity and intelligence. Dumanis felt it with wonder in Sorrow Is Not my Name, in Gay’s second book, Bringing the Shovel Down, as the poem names some of the world’s thousands of “naturally occurring sweet things.” Their names invoke them, calling them into being. The man speaking acknowledges darkness and fear — but his niece is running through a field, calling his name, and when she invokes his name, it is also sweet.

New seeds

That spirit and acknowledgement move in his recent work. Gay has recently finished his newest project: A Book of Delights.

He has spent a year writing daily essays about things that call to him, he said, a hundred passages about his garden, his friends, public spaces, and music and books and art. And now he is working on a book about his relationship to the land, his own land and the idea of the land and race.

He wants to dig into the history of racism in America, he said. He wants to talk about conservation, family farms, forces that have shaped people’s lives across generations — what the land has meant to people who worked in the fields but did not own what they grew or the soil that grew it, and what people have gone through to claim their own land, and how they have lived on it.

He wants to follow his family’s history as share croppers coming from the South to Youngstown, Ohio, as they worked the land and as they came north to farm their own fields. Their story encompasses histories of migration, people who have had access to acres and people who have not. As he imagines the book, Gay turns over the material realities and the psychic and spiritual depths of land … economic value, stability, a place to belong.

His mother’s family were farmers, he said. His mother grew impatiens and lilies, and near where he grew up, between the apartments and I-95 near Philadelphia, he knew a wood where he would spend time with plants and pick wild raspberries.

He started his own garden when he moved to Bloomington, and he became a board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, the only one of its kind in the country: a publicly owned place run by volunteers and open to anyone who lives in the area.

Hands to earth

His own relationship to the land pulses in his poems, as immediate as relationships with people. Plants figure largely in his writing, with their own stories. The fig trees in his yard and at the orchard come from his friend Jay’s father, who shows up in to the fig tree on 9th and Christian.

Sometimes plants’ names spill together like mint in July, some sweet, some healing, some with beautiful sounds.

“What a lucky job to give names to fruit,” Gay said, savoring some from his catalog, Ashmead’s kernel, moonglow.

In his lines he climbs trees, pruning branches, eating fruit in the sun and spilling the juice down his shirt. He throws his body into the orchard.

“And mulberries — I love mulberries,” he said. “… They grow all over and drop fruit in places people are not excited about. One of my favorites in town grows a couple of blocks away, and man is it prolific.”

The people who keep the yard where it grows are always grateful when he and his friends come to pick the fruit. The berries stain the pavement dark purple when they fall, and they ferment too in the heat.

He loves the taste and the picking.

“The act of putting one’s hands in the earth, trying to feel like the earth provides a kind of bounty, is sustaining,” he said. “To know you can do that. To put a seed in the ground and know something will come up, and go to seed, and exponentially reproduce — to feel an abundance, a potential for abundance you can witness and be in the middle of — that’s magic. It’s important to be in the process. Things grow, and things die, and things grow because things die. There’s a lot of coming and going and witnessing — and we’re a part of these processes we spend a lot of time pretending we’re not part of.

“And the pleasure of lying on the ground, smelling stuff, that’s a genuine pleasure. That’s a solace.”

This story first ran in the Hill Country Observer. My thanks to editor Fred Daley. Image courtesy of the author.

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