September is a month of transition. The warm, bright freedom of long days wanes into the chilly introspection of rainy nights. It’s a warning about the coming of the great sleep that’s winter. It’s in the morning dew on cars and yellow leaves that swirl before us as we mow the lawn. September signals that we should give up our fantasy of taking a walk in the evening whenever we want or put off fixing that downspout or eating on the patio. We are at the mercy of the earth’s tilt and it’s tilting away from the sun more and more every day.
So it was with delighted surprise that I stumbled across Ross Gay’s poetry this September. I’d seen his name around but I’ve rarely sought out poetry in the last handful of years. I do love and respect it though. There’s a simple reassurance in rereading Duino Elegies or Neruda or the ever reliable Mary Oliver. But not since Mary Oliver have I come across a poet able to meld the natural world with the human in the way Gay does. Generally, poetry is no stranger to the earth’s habits but Gay’s poetry is Whitmanesque, all encompassing, vibrant, aloud, unashamed. He is a modern day bard singing about plants while singing about so much more.
For instance, in his poem “Slipping From Lips” (from Against Which), we see the natural world as well as that of the city. Take a listen:
“The gingko trees leaning outside my window
one month ago a blazed gold now sulk
like the withered talons of a thousand dead
and decaying birds, and the subway’s smog
roasts homeless men through the clenched teeth
of steel grates, and the afternoon shadows stretch and pull,
the sun’s lounge now long…”
Though the poem goes on with mentions of snow and the narrator’s happiness at the new year and subsequent spring arriving, the poem also looks backward toward fall with the gingko trees having held gold leaves, nicely capturing the autumnal time of year. When I read this, I thought, yes, the blaze is right about now, but with rains and windstorms, they fall and disappear, it’s all so glorious, temporary, and sad.
We see this juxtaposition again in “Burial.” Gay writes about death and love and plants in a vivid memoir of his father’s dying days against his own task of planting fruit trees. The entire poem is worth quoting but I love this particular passage, which comes shortly after the narrator’s spoken about digging a hole where he mixes in the ashes of his deceased father.
“…the roots curled around him
like shawls or jungle gyms, like
hookahs or the arms of ancestors,
before breast-stroking into the xylem,
riding the elevator up
through the cambium and into the leaves where,
when you put your ear close enough, you can hear him whisper
Then later, when he’s approaching the tree, now lush with fruit, he says:
“…and I plodded barefoot
and prayerful at the first ripe plum’s swell and blush,
almost weepy conjuring
some surely ponderous verse
to convey this bottomless grace,
you know, oh father, oh father kind of stuff,
hundreds of hot air balloons
filling the sky in my chest, replacing his intubated body
listing like a boat keel side up, replacing
the steady stream of water from the one eye
which his brother wiped before removing the tube,
keeping his hand on the forehead
until the last wind in his body wandered off…”
As I read through this again to proofread, I gulp. The intense moment of his father’s dying experience is lovingly but unsentimentally portrayed, the hot air balloons fill Gay’s body with breath as his father’s body lists from the breath inside it, then goes out as he dies. Wow. What a testament to the power of words to articulate life’s most profound milestones while bringing forth emotion.
The poem balances on this line of life and death throughout, keeping us in the moment of spring, hope, growth until the final lines where Gay bites the plum in his mouth and sees the memory of his father dancing, both “being a little silly / and sweet.” It’s no wonder the book where this poem lives was a National Book Award finalist.
That book is the “catalog of unabashed gratitude.” Of Gay’s three poetry books, it’s the most dialed into the natural world, though not all poems feature it. Gay, an African American, also writes about the black experience, racism, injustice, and history. He also writes simply about a flute or eating waffles. Whatever they’re about, each poem is an inspiring gift. Anyone who loves the natural world needs to read this man’s poetry. Poetry that’s about the pain and joy of the earth’s natural happenings, including the ones we humans live through, fleeting and precious, like a change in seasons.