Speaking of the Body: On Ross Gay and the Physicalities of Language

by Smile Ximai Jiang

Writing, a fundamentally physical act, often occupies my body: my hands cramp from scribbling with abandon, and my eyes strain against the blank page. These days, Ross Gay is often on my mind when I write. For Gay, the body is an integral component of writing, neither a chamber for our minds, nor an impediment to the cerebral conjuring of language. In The Book of Delights, poet and essayist Ross Gay examines the physical nature of writing in an effort to better attend to—and connect with—the experience of language.

In his essayette “Writing By Hand,” Gay advocates for an analog mode of composition that grounds the practice of writing in physical sensations, fostering an awareness of the body. Gay reflects on the manual “loop-de-looping we call language,” which he has constructed with no small amount of “scratch-out” and “wending thought” (33). Here, his hand is a "digressive beast” slowing him down, carving out the time and space required to propel his writing further along the “weird path toward...thinking" (32). Gay inspects a particular run-on sentence whose “accruing syntax” makes possible a “breathlessness” that eludes “the computer’s green corrective lines,” its rigid mandates futile against the “actual magic [of] writing,” which originates in our bodies—in holding a pen in hand (32).

Yet I hesitate to ascribe Gay’s work to amorphous forces (magic?) that undercut the craft and care with which Gay writes, as fluent and familiar as a chat with a loved one. The essays in The Book of Delights did not come into being with a flick of the wrist, a wave of the metaphorical wand. Instead, they stem from Gay’s dedication to capturing the physical experience of language. In “Fishing an Eyelash: Two or Three Cents on the Virtues of the Poetry Reading,” Gay’s delight in physical interactions with the written word spills out in a single, swiftly tilting sentence:

...During a poetry reading you are watching someone communicate with their body... [which] reminds us that the performing body, the reading body, the living body, the body fiddling with the reading lamp on the podium or playing with the hem of her dress or keeping beat on the microphone...looking into the corners of the room, the armpit of their T-shirt damp...pointing to the giraffe in their poem, all of it, is lustrous. (169)

Tangible motions animate the words on the page as Gay orients himself toward the multiplicity of bodies encountering language: “performing,” “pointing,” and “living.” This particular moment resembles a litany just shy of breathless, akin to a friend rushing to share an orange or daydream. Gay unspools a cadence so resonant that his words—much like the body “keeping beat on the microphone”—keep their own beat (169). A thorough exercise in juxtaposition and simultaneity, Gay’s loose-limbed sentences diagram a syntax unique to the environment of his language. He partakes in numerous asides that stretch into paragraph-long parentheticals, which, in this case, feature a polysyndeton delineating delightful, unpredictable experiences—namely, someone reaching into their mouth “to gently fish out an eyelash” (171). As Gay writes these clauses and fragments, I feel him lean in, his hand on my arm. That such vivid specificity thrives in Gay’s body of work (literally, the body of his sentences) points to the integrity of his voice, which itself is attuned to all the immediacies that surround us.

Gay’s presence is also most conspicuous when he calls attention to readers’ presence in language. In the poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” Gay dedicates an entire stanza to inviting and situating the reader inside the text:

And thank you, too. And thanks
for the corduroy couch I have put you on.
Put your feet up. Here’s a light blanket,
a pillow, dear one,
Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey into it.

(stanza 5, lines 1-10)1

The second-person pronoun is by no means a rare occurrence in the poem (or contemporary poetry at large) because in a sense, all speech presupposes a listener. But the rarity lies in how we (the readers) are not situated vaguely in the general direction of the speaker’s address, but rather on “the corduroy couch,” on which the speaker has placed us intentionally. This positioning extends beyond simple imagery: we can touch the blanket, taste the honey. A few lines later, Gay invites another kind of participation: “dear reader, / [thank] you, for staying here with me, / for moving your lips just so as I speak” (lines 7-9). Just as the “moving of lips” mirrors the speaking, so, too, does it root the conversation in reciprocity. Here, the anticipation of a response positions the speaker’s body toward a recipient, and the listener’s listening enables the speaker’s speaking. Speaking transforms into a mutual endeavor.

This extended engagement with language’s physicalities enables Gay to connect with other bodies in and beyond the text. In a meditation on witnessing fireflies, Gay anchors this “unfathomably beautiful” experience with the solid, physical touchstone of his father’s touch (222). The once “illegible” experience becomes “certain” for Gay as he recalls the feeling of “[his] small hand in [his] dad’s big hands”—a feeling that transplants itself onto the reader through a shift in pronouns, and suddenly “you” are “leaning your head into your father’s hip” (222). Gay envisions the body as a vessel for other bodies, whether they be his younger self, his father, or even an unnamed stranger. In other words, the physical nature of language tethers us to the moments and people we hold closest.

Speaking of the body: as I type, my fingers warm against the metal of my machine. I turn a sentence or line in my head over and over so relentlessly, I imagine the corduroy of my mind softening against the shape of my words—which is to say, the shape of my hands around the things I love.


1 Ross Gay, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) via Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58762/catalog-of-unabashed-gratitude.



Smile Ximai Jiang is a poet from Shenzhen, China, living in Massachusetts. She serves as an editor for Polyphony Lit and The Lumiere Review. Smile is a 2023 Poetry Mentee in The Adroit Journal’s Summer Mentorship Program. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Peach Mag, Palette Poetry, Kissing Dynamite, Surging Tide, Rust & Moth, and COUNTERCLOCK, among others. Smile loves sumo oranges and her cat. She tweets at @smiii_jiang.