- Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
Let's start with the cover. It's a painting. Splashes of color ooze unabashedly: oranges, pinks, reds, salmons, and bright baby blues form Rorschach blots. Though seemingly haphazard, there is deliberation in the painter's use of thick brushstrokes. Psychedelic washes of paint have been allowed to flow, but within controlled parameters. This pretty much sums up the style of the poems in Ross Gay's third book, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. Lines flow on the page like paint finding its level.
Reading the book is like walking through a many-splendored garden. Each poem sprawls, bearing its own fruit, with its own fragrance and subtlety. Everywhere is the strange miracle of nature: bodies are transformed into trees, into animals, and even into living instruments.
These poems are litanies for America. Think Walt Whitman meets the Beats. We tumble through cities, watch people on the pavement, congregate beneath fig trees, hear brass bands play. At times, there is the feeling of a panoramic gaze. Car bombs go off, bees bustle, families wail, factories and dandelions spring. There is no syrupy sentimentality.
Nor is this a dry catalogue of American life. As with the painting on the cover, Gay mixes tones. He is at times lyrical, others self-deprecating. The mode of confessional poetry is invoked, yet self-reflectively so. The effect is you never quite know where you are going. A good example of this is "Feet," where a meditation on the aesthetic quality of one man's limbs is eventually revealed to be a cover to discuss the death of a friend who died of leukemia. But the poem moves off that topic to consider its own literary techniques:
Of course she's dead: Tina was her name, of leukemia: so I heard—why else would I try sadly to make music of her unremarkable kindness?I am trying, I think, to forgive myselffor something I don't know what.But what I do know is that I love the moment when the poet saysI am trying to do thisor I am trying to do that.Sometimes it's a horseshit trick …(21-22)
Many of the poems draw attention to the idea of audience, performance, and revelation. "Wedding Poem" opens with the line, "Friends I am here to modestly report"; "Feet" with, "Friends, mine are ugly feet"; and the first line of the title poem is, "Friends, will you bear with me today." It is as though Marc Anthony has been re-incarnated and is now an organic farmer who recites his "Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears" speech while walking down a busy city street. [End Page 174]
This wry self-reflective mode is surprising given the strong sense of nature and the lyrical in the work. Ross serves on the board of the Bloomington Community Orchard and has written memorably about gardening. In a 2011 essay he writes: "I recently split a night blooming jasmine into about 30 plants, both dividing the roots and rooting almost all of the cuttings I took when I pruned it. This plant, when in bloom, smells so good your pants will fall down. And it only shares its scent at night. If you wake up real early, in the dark, you wake up in heaven. If you wake just after the sun does, you smell the plant's ghost lingering." Something of this awe is reflected in the collection. Poems are set in a world of false indigo, lemon balm, Egyptian onions, plum and persimmon trees. Other poems, even if they do not contain ostensible references to gardening, grow in our minds as trees might. It is as though the world is one big garden. In "To the Mulberry Tree" the poet writes:
mostly I'm happy the birdsfeast on the top-most branchesof these tall trees and leave befor the time beingmy blueberries and soon blackberriesand grapes and these little tomatoesthough to be sureit is a certain gleeas spring gasps into...