Odes to joy
by Keith Taylor
From the March, 2016 issue
More than 150 years ago Walt Whitman, who might indeed have been blindly optimistic, wrote, "O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!" American literature since Whitman has had a few celebratory moments, but we seem to have settled into an extended period of anger, loss, and irony, albeit often beautifully and passionately written. Other places--like Latin America, for instance--were more comfortable with a broader emotional palette. Pablo Neruda, in addition to writing the great historical poems of South America, could write hundreds of odes celebrating the commonest things--his socks, a large tuna, lost things.
And now, suddenly, an American writer has assumed Neruda's mantle of joy and is being honored for it. Ross Gay's Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude was on almost everyone's list of best poetry books of 2015, and is still short-listed for some of the major awards. In Gay's Catalog the poet writes long odes to small things, in short lines that offer their homage to Neruda but put Gay's own spin on things. "Ode to buttoning and unbuttoning my shirt" begins, "No one knew or at least / I didn't know / they knew / what the thin disks / threaded here / on my shirt / might give me / in terms of joy / this is not something to be taken lightly / the gift / of buttoning one's shirt / slowly ..." The poem rushes on with conjunctions and without punctuation for three pages celebrating the act of putting on and taking off a shirt! By the end of the poem, you're convinced that the simplicity of every action is actually important.
Gay is a gardener and keeps an orchard in Bloomington, Indiana, and he luxuriates in the things he has planted and nurtures. The long poem "The opening" begins with an homage to his father but switches in the middle to the story of the poet pruning a peach tree he has planted. He admits a certain sadness
in the process of trimming but knows it is important: "This is how, every spring, // I promise the fruit will swell with sugar: by bringing in the air and light-- / until, like the old-timers say, the tree is open enough // for a bird to fly through. Which, in fact, they do--two cardinals flirting; a blue jay flashing its pompadour ..."
Gay does not ignore life's pains. He writes movingly about his mother's sadness and the dignity of his father, in the midst of difficult labor. He has a long elegy for his colleague Don Belton, who was horribly murdered in a crime of twisted passion. The poet has not shut his eyes to all of this. But in the title poem, "Catalog of unabashed gratitude," he dreams of a bird speaking directly to him:
it was telling meRoss Gay is an extraordinary performer of his own work, and he reads it as the keynote speaker for the Voices of the Middle West Conference on March 11 and 12.
in no uncertain terms
to bellow forth the tubas and sousaphones,
the whole rusty brass band of gratitude
not quite dormant in my belly--
it said so in a human voice,
and who among us could ignore such odd
and precise counsel?
This article has been edited since it was published in the March 2016 Ann Arbor Observer. The name of the conference has been corrected.
[Originally published in March, 2016.]
On March 10, 2016, LisaLou wrote:
Apparently it's called "Voices of the Middle West", not of the "Midwest". Just sayin', fer searchability, what with no links er nuthin'.
On March 10, 2016, John Hilton wrote:
Thanks--it's corrected now.
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