There may be effusion in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, but there’s definitely no mawkishness, no syrupy sentimentalism. Ferociously earnest and jubilant, Ross Gay’s third collection is not simply an ode to finding gratitude for the things we usually take for granted: it is a triumphant declaration of love for the world we live in. Here, the most mundane things acquire profound significance and can convey nuanced reflections on race, gender, and sexuality. Buttoning one’s shirt leads one to ponder on the fragility of things. Recalling how pleasant it is to sleep in one’s clothes veers off into an unsettling meditation that does not shy away from a certain darkness:
it is said that Shostakovich slept
with a packed suitcase beneath
his bed and it is said
that black people were snatched
from dark streets and made experiments
Beneath a façade of effervescent joy, subtle defamiliarization is at work here: the tranquil familiarity of sleep is disturbed here by considerations of death and violence. But this sense of an imminent threat is in turn dispelled, or at least muted by the end of the poem, which moves back to the space of the garden, one associated with miracles.
A fervent gardener himself, Gay is intimately acquainted with the ways life and death work together, both within the garden and the human body. In a sense, the poems work as “the factory / where loss makes all things / beautiful grow”: in “burial,” Gay recounts how he placed his father’s ashes over the roots of the plum tree he was planting: at the time of harvest, his father’s spirit seemed to have imbued the fruit itself; from ash to branch to plum, the paternal presence is magnified. In the closing poem, “last will and testament,” the poet pleads to be dismembered after his death and scattered across the garden, so as to be literally part of the regenerative force in the soil. The bitter, tragic irony of life does not escape the poet though, as when he recounts his friendship with Don, “a 53-year-old gay black man” who survived in his youth but was eventually murdered. Odes become elegies then, but the garden is always at the center of it all, serving as the communal space where meaningful relationships might be forged.
The garden in general is a space of utter freedom, denoting the joyful profusion of life (even with the presence of the gardener, who is only pruning here and there to fortify the trees, even with the figure of the “puritan” nestled within each of us). Positive qualities in people are systematically associated with nature—a man’s kindness is thus described as “abundant and floral.” The very rhythm of the poems, regardless of line and stanza length, magnifies the feeling of effusion: punctuation is often sparse (mostly commas) and works with the stream-of-consciousness, synesthetic flow to give the poetic voice an ample and breathless quality, a joyful urgency. An entire stanza in the title poem is devoted to an accumulation of plant names, to the point where, as we read the poem out loud, the names roll off the tongue, evoking climbing plants whose tendrils spread everywhere. In general, the descriptions of lush, overflowing yards and natural spaces grown to look “ragged and wild” are a testament to the possibilities that arise when humans live in symbiosis with nature—a new Eden of sorts, where balance has been achieved.
When talking about nature and life, spirituality is indeed never really far, and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude does display a strong spiritual aspect, which goes far beyond the physical space of church or the verbal presence that prayer effects. Instead, this type of spirituality is to be found in the daily communion of human beings, over a fig tree for example, like the one growing in the first poem at the corner of 9th and Christian St. in Philadelphia. Beyond the Christian associations to the fig tree, Gay focuses on the powerful image of people picking and eating the figs together, relishing the sense of belonging that has spontaneously emerged.
Entwined with this question of belonging is that of migration and roots: that the fig tree should be—and survive, and bear delicious fruit—so far north is surprising, and the poet finds in the tree an image of the migrant who has learned to live in unlikely places. Another poem taking place in Indiana has the narrator bluntly stating that the state is “where I am really not from, where, / for years, Negroes weren’t even allowed entry”—the pain of displacement associated with that of history, a pain transmitted from one generation to the next, among people for whom being deprived of one’s roots and being barred from belonging to a place had become an integral part of their identity and heritage.
But these moments, more solemn and grave, underscore, rather than undermine, the sheer exaltation that courses throughout the collection, rife with humor—a lot of it sexual, often brought upon by the giddiness of spring and all things growing. In parts, the poet even takes a step back and considers the poem as it is being written, asking up front “who / knows where the poem / will lead you.” These moments of subtle ars poetica draw attention to how organic the poems feel—as well they should. Let us then, like the narrator, be called upon by robins to “bellow forth”—a new version of the yawp—“the whole rusty brass band of [our] gratitude” for having such a cornucopia-collection out in the world, reminding us in its heady song to revel in the wonders this world grants us every single day.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, by Ross Gay. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, February 2015. 112 pages. $15.95, paper.
AK Afferez is a writer, translator, avid traveler, and sporadic blogger with a fondness for aliases (real name: Héloïse). She grew up in Michigan, studied for a bit on the East Coast, and currently lives in France.