“Be Holding”

From the Book of the Same Name

September 4, 2020  By Ross Gay

as Erving went higher
and now began

to extend his right hand in a precise arc
beginning precisely above his head,

painting a broad and precise circle
not unlike Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

in his hula hoop
of perfect proportions

(if that little naked man wasn’t little
or naked and was palming a basketball

and was flying
through the trees)

and I find myself again and again with my arm
making the perfectly impossible circle

again and again
as I watch this clip on YouTube

frame by frame clumsily
on a computer with gummy keys

and a Post-it note
covering the eyehole scrawled

on April 5, 2015,

at 1:48 a.m., again
and again, thinking

what am I looking at,
what am I seeing,

back to the first long step toward the baseline,
the slight contact with Landsberger,

the leap, again,
long step, contact,

leap, again, long step,
contact, leap,

again, long step, contact, leap,
and I notice this time

in the background,
which is, granted, hazy,

this being old footage and my eyes a bit rheumy
for the now nearly two hours studying this clip,

I notice, at about the foul line, Silk,
aka Jamaal Wilkes,

who, for the record, Coach Wooden,
on the record, said was his best player ever at UCLA,

not Kareem and
oh fuck forever Bill Walton,

and it’s worthwhile to spend at least a moment
with the name Silk,

among the finest basketball nicknames,
implying an ease and fluidity of movement,

implying a difficult thing,
a painful thing,

made to look easy,
a fiber prized for its softness,

its smoothness on the skin,
gathered from captive worms

fed mulberry leaves,
my court name was Beast

for what it’s worth,
and after a summer league game

on the court at 10th and Lombard
where those in the know

would slide through a gap
in the grimace of the wrought iron gate

to get in, a court that would be in time
shut down in the most heinous

of ways—removing the rims—
the backboards lonely as gravestones—

because of complaints to the city
from the condo owners

across the street
who did not want to hear god forbid

all that Negro gathering
and celebration and care and delight

every goddamn weekend morning
all that

frolic and tumult,
all that flight,

(why can’t they just go
someplace else?)

a slightly older opponent
told me, holding

my hand and shoulder
and pulling me close

—he was holding me—
beneath the stately oaks

overhanging the court,
looking kindly down on us

and time to time
blocking a high arcing shot

and wishing a leaf or two upon
the ex-ballers on the sidelines

reading the Philadelphia Inquirer,
sipping coffee, debating and laughing

or acting stupid like refs making calls
oh yeah he walked his ass off,

the oaks dappling the oldheads and their discourse
(the best line of verse I will ever write),

his shirt soaked through,
staring at me to be sure

I was listening, which I was, then as now,
you aint no beast, you aint

no beast, you’re a man,
you hear me,

I notice Silk’s right leg and hip twitch
before relaxing with what might have been the body’s aw shit

though if you look closely,
again and again,

in a certain kind of way,
again and again,

you’ll see also what might be a kind of light
descending upon Silk’s high cheekbones

and forehead, again and again,
unfurling almost across his face

as he cranes his neck toward the soaring
until you’d almost swear, tonight,

at 2:26 a.m., he was looking into
a tree strewn with people,

the human-shaped shadows twisting
across his body, the legs swaying into his torso,

a gray hand birding across his face,
resting for a second at his ear,

the pinky become a beak from which
wheezed a tiny song, you’d swear,

watching this sliver of the clip
again and again,

the shadow of one man’s head seeming to lay itself
on Silk’s chest, for which, in the clip,

you’ll see Silk make of his arm
a cradle, lowering his head

as though to say I’m sorry,
I’m so sorry,

with which the tree makes a kind of choir,
moaning, I’m so sorry,

twisting its roots in the molder
with what they’ve been made to do


“Be Holding” from the book Be Holding, by Ross Gay, © 2020. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Ross Gay
Ross Gay
Ross Gay teaches poetry at Indiana University and is the author of the poetry collections Against Which, Bringing the Shovel Down, Lace and Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens (with Aimee Nezhukumatathil), River (with Rose Wehrenberg), Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and the essay collection The Book of Delights. His latest book is Be Holding.

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