Ross Gay Demands Our Attention (in a Pandemic or Otherwise)

Sara B. Franklin on a True Poet of Our Times

Ross Gay is asking for our attention. Wielding luscious everyday words—Ashmead’s kernel, feverfew, rudbeckia—and filling the mouth with linguistic play—thank you what in us rackets glad / what gladrackets us—to the plumage of his own purple scarf, his salmon-colored button down shirt, he beckons us in, points, demands: Come with me. Look here. Feel this. Now. An invitation to join him in loving what every second goes away. The riot, the dazzle, the urgency, is irresistible.

At 47, Gay has achieved a rare presence in both literary circles and popular culture, becoming both a poet’s poet and a gateway poet for the wary, by which I mean those who generally find poetry, as a form, alienating, confusing, or simply not worth their time. His 2015 work, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and also earned Gay multiple shout-outs from Oprah, giving the collection an almost unheard of level of visibility.

But it was his 2019 Book of Delightshis first work of prose—that thrust him into the mainstream; though Gay had a following in the before, his audience has grown exponentially during the pandemic. Some of this is timing: The Book of Delights was published just months before shelter in place orders began. Given its dealings with the sorts of pleasures available to us in lockdown—birdwatching, backyard gardening, rubbing coconut oil into the skin after a hot shower—it resonated with readers who found themselves, overnight, snapped into isolation. In 2020, Delights landed on the New York Times bestseller list.

It was onto that considerable platform that Gay arrived with his latest book, Be Holding, a work decidedly unlike Delights in both form at tone. Be Holding is a single-sentence book-length poem that begins as a meditation on an iconic layup by the legendary Julius “Dr. J” Erving of the Philadelphia ‘76ers, and then stretches in myriad directions, touching upon everything from the notion of flight to the death of Gay’s father, the extractive gaze of white cameras upon Black bodies to our stuckness here, in this broken world, together. Be Holding is as beguiling as it is urgent, equal parts agonizing and ecstatic. It is a critical work of reckoning for this fraught moment in which many of us are wondering how we might move forward despite the devastation we have wrought, both in our particular American context, and in our world as a whole.

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For nearly two years now, I have been held in thrall by Ross Gay. The Bloomington, Indiana-based poet, professor, and essayist—who is always quick to add gardener and orchardist to his credentials—came to me in the form of a gift (an ideal way, I think, to encounter Gay), when a beloved friend bestowed upon me the then newly published Book of Delights in the fall of 2019. The book, a project in which Gay spent a year articulating and musing on the delights that punctuate our days, daily and in longhand, left me changed. I was headed into a northeast winter in a myopic paralysis of dread; at the time, my marriage was in crisis, my twin children were small and needy, and I had seemingly forgotten how to attend to anything but what fallout I imagined to be hurtling down the pike. This is where Gay’s work met me: at a moment of snide cynicism, when beauty was struggling to cut through. His words—scintillating and sensual, exacting and clear—snapped me out of the funk. In the midst of the slow sink, they offered a buoy.

So when his most recent work, Be Holding,­ was published in the fall of 2020, I picked it up right away. The spine of my copy is now so cracked, its pages so full of my effusive marginalia, that I’m loathe to pass it on. Still, I recommend it to those with whom I feel it might resonate, those whom I feel might need it. Which is to say: everyone.

If there is any question as to whether the practices Gay catalogued in Delights will continue to be relevant post pandemic, it should be noted the book was written PRE-pandemic: these aren’t practices specific to lockdown, and they weren’t written in response to anything other than life in general. Gay’s instructions and reflections on noticing were committed to paper and published—brilliantly, presciently—just ahead of a dire global cultural moment when we needed them most. Even the most privileged among us have been indelibly altered by the collective trauma of the past 18 months, by the complete disruption to our assumptions of daily life, our government’s willingness and (in)ability to protect us, access to resources, and—not insignificantly—the challenge of confronting ourselves and one another when forced into our homes. As we make sense of what’s happened and what lies before us, Gay’s lessons become more useful than ever. Be Holding is far more radical in its messages and questions than Delights, and—again brilliantly, again presciently—was published just as we began to need it.

For nearly two years now, I have been held in thrall by Ross Gay.

What’s most striking about Gay’s recent work is how deliberately he’s gotten his readers right where he wants us: in the trenches, prepared to follow him along a rhizomatic route of interconnected elation and heartbreak, pleasure and agony; where we make each other, where we break each other. This is a project that runs counter to contemporary American culture, where we launch Molotov cocktails of political pettiness and personal invective at one another from behind the protection of social media platforms, only to slink away when we’re called upon to engage with one another in meaningful, nuanced ways. Gay grinds up against that mode of being, preferring, instead, to take a protracted route, to, in his words, “Meditate on a thing all the way through.”

For example, in a year in which breath has become part of our daily anxiety and rage as never before (virus particles floating, unseen, all around us as we inhale; George Floyd’s horrific pleading as his final breath was taken from him by a white policeman kneeling on his neck), its centrality in Be Holding lends the book that much more urgency, that much more timeliness in its arrival.

In his most recent book, Gay writes:
do you see what I’m saying
we’re in here talking
about holding each other,
which is a practice, we
talking about holding
our breath,
how long have we been,
and how can I be
holding yours,
and you
be holding mine,
this is my question,
I think,
how might I be
holding your breathing
and you be
holding mine,
a practice
we talking about,
the reaching that makes
of falling flight,
we in here
talking about the practice
of the beholden,
talking about
how might I hold you
my beholden out to you
and you hold yours out to me,
how do we be holding each other,
how do we be
beholden to each other,
which is really to say,
how do we be”

This is signature Gay at work: once we’re with him, he does not let us off the hook, no matter how much we’re writhing with hurt and awe. Instead, he holds us there, turning the thing—whatever it may be—over and over, forcing us to confront both wonder and grief, pushing us to reckon with the reality that they, in equal measure, provide ballast to our existence: With only a superficial notion of joy, we will float away; yet, if we attend only to cruelty and trauma, we will surely be pulled under.

Walking this high-wire of truth—and the constant readjustment it takes—is one of Gay’s central projects or, as he would likely deem it, one of his practices, both as a poet, and as a human (it is not hard to tell, nor to believe, Gay when he quickly asserts that teaching is his ideal job, as he did in late 2020 on the Versus podcast with poets Danez Smith and Franny Choi). But he also knows it’s a difficult one, especially for those of his readers whose first exposure to him came via Delights, which is to say, those who are not inclined towards poetry. His solution to this is to suggest that we must do it together, that no individual—no self—can take on this way of being alone. He gives space to this in the acknowledgements section of Be Holding, a ten-page thank you note-cum-essay in which Gay writes, “This joy-ning is not without a little ambivalence sometimes in the world-destroying horseshit capitalist nightmare fantasy of the individual. Oh shit, I’ve never made anything by myself! Oh shit, I maybe am not a myself! Oh shit, I definitely am not a myself! Oh shit, it’s all been given to me. It’s all been given to me. Oh. O. Thank you.”

The notion of a we—a collective that reaches far beyond our comprehension of who and what we belong to—is fundamental to understanding Gay’s poetic mission: He constantly asks his reader, the world, and himself how can we get deeper in with one another. He demonstrates, in every poem, that entanglement is not only our destiny but our raison d’être. From Be Holding’s acknowledgements again: “My breath is made possible by the breath of others. My breath is the breath of others. My is not my, and how could it ever be? And who would want it so? We talking about practice. We owe each other everything.”

The notion of a we—a collective that reaches far beyond our comprehension of who and what we belong to—is fundamental to understanding Gay’s poetic mission.

This way of seeing, this way of being, Gay knows, takes effort, and a hell of a lot of un-learning; this is not how we came up. He summons us to work with him: “—But let’s breathe first,” he writes in Be Holding, “We’re always holding our breath. Let’s stop and breathe, you and me—.” We will be frightened, we will experience pain. Pause. Breathe. Deeply if you can, but panting will do, Gay seems to say, if it’s all you can muster. Then, keep going.

This is not a practice Gay came by easily. He reveals repeatedly in his prose, poetry, and interviews that he came to this stance slowly, over many years of working it out in relationships, poetry and, yes, therapy, after spending much of his life trying to do things another way—a lonelier, number way—and confronting, again and again, the peril that is belief in the independent self, the holding back and isolation of ourselves from one another.

Ross brings an unusual awareness to reception of his work, one likely borne of his rise in popularity over the past year (most poets hope anyone reads their work, rather than anxiously wondering how their work is read). “An occasional irritation that I have,” he said on the “Between the Covers” podcast with David Naimon, “Is when someone will sort of say a thing like, ‘Oh you know, Ross Gay, he can make anything delightful.’” There, Gay laughed, hard. “And I’m just like, ‘You didn’t read the fucking book!’” He paused, then, starting off in a few different directions (Gay is wont to do this in his speaking as well as his poems), then continuing: “When I say joy, I don’t mean satisfaction. I don’t mean contentment. That’s a long way of saying that it’s both irritating and probably, that there is some degree of fear or worry that this is being read in a certain kind of way that diminishes the depth of what I’m trying to say.

So when I’m talking about joy—and I like to say the word grave—because when I’m talking about joy, I’m talking about something that is informed, fundamentally, by the fact that we’re going to die.” It’s not that Gay believes joy can override the abundant horrors of our world and society, or the hurt we impose on one another. Quite the opposite: it’s that he sees the inherent suffering of our lives as the fundamental, binding common ground from which exultation springs, from whose ruins a future is possible.

His defense of his perspective is accurate, provable, even: his poems are not existential in their dealings (though his words and phrases have a tendency to transport, even to transcend, if you’ll let them). Rather, they are grounded in the real, the everyday, the mundane. He writes of buttoning and unbuttoning shirts, being shat on by birds, the smell of semen, buckets of hot wings, and falling down the YouTube rabbit holes of sports clips. His is a poetics of the actual lives we live, rather than the ones we aspire to. Any glory he lands upon is, therefore, one you might access, too. But only with great attention—which requires mighty, and constant practice—can they become palpable to us. “I wonder,” he said in his conversation with Naimon, “If one of practices of joy is to be walking with that understanding perpetually with us: This is changing, this is changing. What a kind of sheen to the world to be like, this very well might be the last time that we are together.”

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“The pandemic is a porthole,” wrote Arundhati Roy in April 2020, less than a month into the COVID-19 pandemic. She was then—and remains, now—right, but she stopped short of helping us figure out how to willingly wade deep into the shit, a charge Gay takes up with glee, sometimes, literally: In the titular poem of Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Gay wrote:

I am here
to holler that I have hauled tons—a by which I don’t mean lots,
I mean tons—of cowshit
and stood ankle deep in swales of maggots
swirling the spent beer grains
the brewery man was good enough to dump off
holding his nose, for they smell very bad,
but make the compost writhe giddy and lick its lips.

He does this to assist himself and his readers in a kind of sitting with and a passing through, in order so that we may be transformed. What Ross Gay knows, what he unabashedly drives home in his work, is that our daily lives have always presented us with these portholes, and in great abundance: from basketball layups to pruning fruit trees, napping in public to playing with words, making love to noticing the beauty of two people sharing the load of a shopping bag.

By naming these things, by exalting the extraordinary in the mundane, Gay brings us nose to nose with what is already in and around us, and into joyful acknowledgement of our enjoinment with, and to, one another. This is the practice of deliberately moving ourselves towards entanglement—the opposite of which, Gay believes, is wreckage. Only in this state of rapt attention, of deep, wakeful gratitude for all that we do and are to one another, can we face the totality of it. This, Gay says, is how we be holding each other, this is how we be beholden to each other. This is how we be. 

Sara B. Franklin
Sara B. Franklin
Sara B. Franklinis a writer, teacher, and mother. She is a professor of oral history, writing, and food studies at NYU Gallatin. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Afar and Travel & Leisure. She is the editor of the acclaimed 2018 anthology, Edna Lewis: At the Table with An American Original; co-author of The Phoenicia Diner Cookbook (March 2020); and is currently at work on a narrative portrait of the legendary editor, Judith Jones, for which she received a 2020-2021 NEH Public Scholars Fellowship. She lives with her twin children in Kingston, NY.





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