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Review | Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay

Dear Walt Whitman:

I’m writing to assure you that your poetic voice and perspective are alive and well in American verse of the 21st century. I say this after having read Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay, a book that could only have been written in a world where you, dear Walt, continue to thrive in the poetic imagination.

All of your signature components have been passed down to and adapted by Gay—your long breath line is there, your ecstasy, your rapture and wonder. It is a poem of joy, yes, but people often forget that you wrote Drum-Taps and that “what is removed drops horribly in the pail.” Not so much Ross Gay. Yes, as the title tells us, the book is a catalog/list of joy and thanks that will not be ashamed to burst forth. But Gay understands the necessity of the tragic or grim mixed with sheer abundance of wonder; it’s how life really is, and it makes for more complex art than one that is too single-minded.

I’m not saying, Mr. Whitman, that if you read Gay’s book you would mistake it for your own. Gay is his own poet with his own voice and technique. Walt, you would delight in his form, I think: each poem is a rush of utterance. There is scant punctuation in the Catalog, no hesitation or pause in the onward push. The lines are uniformly short, so unlike you, but the effect is similar, a perpetually turning motor of energy. It is conversational, it can be large and contain multitudes—armpits are praised, the simple and small gesture of gulping water from hands is praised, Pizza Huts appear, acid-dropping teens; if a bird dies it is mourned as you would wish: a symbol of natural beauty dying horribly at the hands of modern man (in this case, a car windshield.)

Of the 24 poems in the book, at least 12 are clear odes or should be construed as odes—“to the fig tree on 9th and christian,” “to the mistake,” “to the mulberry tree,” “ode to buttoning and unbuttoning my shirt,” “ode to sleeping in my clothes.” An ode, beyond its ancient Greek tri-partite form, is a song or chant of intense feeling, feelings often of love, respect and celebration. To Gay, the daily task of buttoning and unbuttoning a shirt is worth heralding.

“ode to buttoning and unbuttoning my shirt” is a good one to look at more closely, dear Walt. Gay goes macro and micro—the pollen furred legs of a bee mingle “in this world / of spaceships and subatomic / this and that.” “[I]n terms of joy / this is not something to be taken lightly / the gift / of buttoning one’s shirt.” The associative thinking riffs some impressive connections and images:

slowly untethering
the one side
from the other
which is like unbuckling
a stack of vertebrae
with delicacy
for I must only use
the tips
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes
this is as delicate
as we can be
in this life

The magic of the daily task is connected by a meandering thinking to a future death, tied together by the delicacy of the gesture and tactile sensation of closing.

The I pronoun is strong in the book—all of the experiences recounted are “real” ones, and they are rooted in reality. The I provides a conversational tone to poems filled with asides and offhand commentary:

I am lecturing
on the miracle
of the mistake
in a poem
that hiccup or weird
gift that spirals
or jettisons
what’s dull and land-locked
into as-yet-untraversed-i.e. cosmic
(I overuse this metaphor
with my students)

Here, in “to the mistake,” Gay hits a number of themes and motifs important to the book: first, it’s an ode to something often overlooked or under-praised, a mistake in a poem. Second, the repeated “or” allows it to move through different ideas the way “real” thought does—“hiccup or weird” gift “that spirals or jettisons;” the poet is unsure and lets multiple possibilities coexist as he seems to think on the fly or on the run. Third, the use of “cosmic” seems almost a deliberate tip of the hat to you, Walt; and fourth is the aside in the parenthetical. The aside is conversational and somewhat self-effacing. The poem goes on to say

I know
of what
I speak like
the two tabs
of very potent
acid I
dropped four hours
before this reunion

That Gay can make room for memories of a high school acid trip in this poem is wonderful, but what truly shines in this passage are the lines. The short stabs come and come and come like hesitant speech that is catching fire and taking flight; the breaks are clever and keep the talk interesting (“acid I,” “I speak like”); and information is delivered in delays of thought and talk that generate momentum and propulsion. There is verisimilitude at work in the representation of “real” thinking, which lends authenticity and believability, which makes the speaker sympathetic and funny. All of this at work together makes for a joyful reading experience, one that is visceral and arresting.

But, Walt, it isn’t all yawps and cosmic joy of gazing at the pollen-furred legs of the bee. Gay can be a downer, or, maybe it’s better to say that he acknowledges that as joyful as life is, it’s fleeting and often hard and painful. In “ode to sleeping in my clothes” he compares his repose to a corpse and details an imagined death of blocked arteries and stopped heart. The poem that immediately follows (“becoming a horse”) is truly wild and fierce, and, uncharacteristically, heavily punctuated with lots of stops and controlled, deliberate speech. This poem is a dream of transformation, a change that is ultimately filled with “sorrow”—a word that is repeated before attention is turned to a maggot in a corpse. This is either not an ode, or it’s an über-ode; the poet’s imagination and love for the strength and beauty of the horse go beyond language (“these words cast off, at last, / for the slow honest tongue of horses”) beyond talking about it, and become it. Perhaps this is an ode that goes so far it unites the praised thing with the person praising—the singer with the song.

The title poem is the thesis statement, and contains all of the high speeds, energy, love, passion, and muck under the boot soles of the entire collection into one epic, giddy yawp of joy. However, the poem with more subtlety—and energy—is the personal prelude of “the opening.” A poem called “catalog of unabashed gratitude” tells us everything we need to know in the title, and fulfills our expectation without any hesitation of driving home the main point. “the opening” is another beast entirely—a twelve page multi-part poem that allows Gay to go “off topic” from chronic ode to something strange and deep and personal. Much of this poem is driven by “negative energy;” the praised things are often grotesque (vivid scenes of gorging on fried chicken wings) or troubling (matricide). That Gay puts these into his typical ode form make it all the more interesting. Birds, invading a house, sneak in

at the slimmest shims of light

between shingles and through rotholes wedging first
their heads in without blinking and collapsing

the bones of their bodies their tongues thrust out
and necks made long wriggling in leaving behind

clumps of shivering feathers blood-glued to the cracks
one after the next prying through loose the boards (. . .)

The birds darting in by force and violence become a figure for repressed emotions that, as the momentum increases, is finally laid bare:

in addition to everything else, simply, goddamn,
how sad my mother was when my father died, goddamn,

how sad was Myself; and how scared was Myself,
scared nearly, in fact, to death, at his mother afraid

(. . .)

felt the bones of his chest breaking which was the feeling

of the very real terror he had at what his hands might do, which his hands
would never do, which was like the wood shake helpless against the prying

All in all, Walt, I think you will find much to enjoy here. You obviously birthed a rich American poetic tradition that was inherited—not wholesale and not without some caveats—by Ross Gay. His alignment with you makes for a fast-paced, pleasurable, jubilant and positive book that, like Ginsberg and others in your lineage, finds the ecstatic and rapturous in everyday contemporary life.

I hope this letter finds you well. Please give my regards to the hierarchies of angels. 




Craig Beaven’s work appears in BlackbirdThird CoastCarolina QuarterlyCutbankSouthern Humanities Review, and other journals.