Sentimentality (as distinguished from sentiment) is a no-no in serous poetry, and so often, the strongest poems are serious, sad, and dark. But Ross Gay’s book of poetry, called CATALOG OF UNABASHED GRATITUDE, proves that poems with a mix of mourning and joy, bleakness and grace, are more powerful still – just as love and courage conquer fear. While you read this book, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry – but throughout you’ll feel a profound enjoyment.
In “to the fig tree on 9th and Christian,” Gay shows us a man eating a fig and “rubbing his stomach / like there was a baby / in there,” and a crowd of people feeding each other from that tree in Philadelphia, “a city like most / which has murdered its own / people.”
In “burial,” Gay plants two plum trees, mixing his father’s ashes in the soil. As the poem unfolds, Gay speaks of his father rising in the tree and into the sweet fruit, and he recalls his father’s antics when he knew he “could make you happy / just by being a little silly/ and sweet.”
Ross Gay does things, says things, in poems that many of us won’t dare to do, and yet he earns the right. After all, rules are meant to be broken, and you can, if you have a good reason and can pull it off. In ”feet,” after spending nearly two pages talking about his feet, he asks, “but do you really think I’m talking to you about my feet?” Then he comments on what poets do –
“I love the moment when the poet says / I’m trying to do this / or I’m trying to do that,” and even admits that “Sometimes it’s a horseshit trick.” In the end, he calls “the little factory / in my head” a place “where loss makes all things / beautiful grow.”
Can you see why I love these poems? Gay writes about a childhood incident that shamed him and says it “could be a thing / heavy and warm / to be buried in / or instead might be held up / to the light / where we see the threads / barely holding / so human and frail / so beautiful and sad and small / from this remove.”
We follow Gay’s rather unique phrasing, his twists and turns, trusting in reward. And so in “opening,” we learn of a memory of his father sharing Kentucky fried chicken with him, of a bird flown into his windshield, of the thought of poisoning his mother because of “how sad [she] was when my father died, goddamn,” and of pruning a peach tree. Then he corrects himself, saying birds are “the wrong metaphor” for closing up, because they “favor the long view / of open meadows.” He realizes that “the roaring in his head” was no more than “the sounds of not weeping, the sounds / of sadness turned back. Nothing savage, nothing cruel or vicious, / not a bird in sight—just sadness. Which is to say, / in other words, just being alive.”
In this book, several poems are odes to trees – fig, peach, and in the last poem I’ll comment on, “to the mulberry tree.” In this poem, a bird shits on the poet, and the shit is purple from the mulberries. Off Gay goes – a girl appears, and he says “the tree inside me” is “the same tree now grown inside of you,” and “the three of us snugged in the canopy / on our tippy-toes, gathering fruit / for good.”
Throughout this book, Ross Gay does not shrink from the sad, the ugly, the dirty. Instead, like fruit, he gathers it all “for good,” nourishing the human spirit. It’s as if he believes, as I do, that when we shine a light into the acknowledged dark, the darkness is no more.