The first time I remember laughing and feeling joy after the dark night of the 2016 election was at a Ross Gay poetry reading in Seattle. The exuberance of his latest book title, A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, was a first clue to the evening’s theme and tone. The poems expressed it, and his body enacted it: he never stands still. His energy and passion were audible and visible–and contagious. And his sentiments are saved from sentimentality by being hard won. They choose joy from a menu that also offers grief, rage, and despair–not by ignoring darkness, but by acknowledging it. In “Spoon,” dedicated to a friend, it’s only after he’s spent six pages drawing a loving portrait that he says, “I swore when I got into this poem I would convert/ this sorrow into some kind of honey with the little musics// I can sometimes make with these scribbled artifacts/ of our desolation….” And then, four couplets below, “After Don was murdered I dreamt of him….”
I often find myself giving into hopelessness in recent months, feeling as if our country and so many things I value have tipped irretrievably off a cliff. But just yesterday a friend reminded me that hopelessness is self-indulgent–and indeed, I can feel the relief when I throw up my hands and decide there’s nothing to be done: great, it’s not on me to solve it. But then I re-read Ross Gay’s “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning my Shirt,” and take in his pleasure at such a small thing. And his celebratory odes, “To the Mistake,” and “To Sleeping in my Clothes.” Maybe my favorite opening is the first couplet of “The Opening”: “You might rightly wonder what I am doing here/ in the passenger’s seat of this teal Mitsubishi….” Among the many passages I wish I had written is this one from “Feet”: “But what I do know is that I love the moment when the poet says/ I am trying to do this/ or I am trying to do that./ Sometimes it’s a horseshit trick. But sometimes/ it’s a way by which the poet says/ I wish I could tell you, truly, of the little factory/ in my head: the smokestacks/ chuffing, the dandelions/ and purslane and willows of sweet clover/ prying through the blacktop….” I am tempted to quote the book’s wonderful last lines here, but in case you haven’t already read the poems I’ll let you discover them for yourself.