Ross Gay’s Wild and Sensual Poems

Ross Gay’s poetry is lush with sensual pleasure. He uses strong imagery, musical language, and an unusual approach to poetic line to achieve this lushness. He eschews punctuation in many of his poems, relying almost entirely on white space and line breaks to achieve his phrasing. I’ve tried doing some similar with my own work, but Gay commits himself entirely to this technique, forcing it to do the work of commas, periods, capitalization, dashes. In “to the fig tree on 9th and christian,” —the first in his latest collection, catalog of unabashed gratitude— his short lines stutter down the page, slowing the eye at points both expected and unexpected. With no punctuation and no capital letters, he relies on the reader to suss out where one sentence ends and the next begins. This elision works both in concert with and counterpoint to his line breaks. The opening lines rush forth with enjambment through three separate thoughts:

… probably
rehearsing some
stupid thing I
said or did
some crime or
other the city they
say is a lonely
place until yes
the sound of sweeping
and a woman
yes with a
broom…

This poem drops us into a world of sensual pleasure and connection as the speaker moves from isolation into communion with strangers over the fruit of a fig tree. It includes one of the most musical lines in the book:

rinsing and scrubbing
the walk
lest some poor sod
slip on the
silk of a fig
and break his hip

Assonance ties these lines together, and builds up to “silk of a fig,” encapsulating both the pleasure and the danger of the sensual world. It’s also a surprising and accurate depiction of the texture of a crushed, ripe fig on the sidewalk. The fig tree is an ancient symbol of defiance: Adam and Eve used fig leaves to clothe themselves after they broke God’s first commandment in the Garden of Eden. Jesus curses the fig tree for not bearing fruit when he is hungry. But this fig tree bears more fruit than either its owner or the speaker can eat, drawing other passersby into the spontaneous harvest.

Gay’s narrative moves us—as good poetry often does—away from the moment and then back into it. His speaker remembers “where I ate my first gift / from the hand of a man / who escaped his country / by swimming through the night,” and then, in the present moment of the poem, contemplates

the tree which everyone knows
cannot grow this far north
being Mediterranean
[…]
but no one told the fig tree
or the immigrants
there is a way
the fig tree grows
in groves it wants,
it seems, to hold us.

With these lines, the poem becomes not just a pleasant story but a commentary on America’s ambivalence toward immigrants, and on defiance itself. Gay uses punctuation here to arrest the reader and call attention to the significance of these lines. But he does so while still eliding sentences, allowing for a beautiful ambiguity difficult to achieve outside of poetry. Does he mean that no one told the fig tree or the immigrants that they can’t grow this far north? Or did no one tell them there is a way? The fig tree grows in the groves it wants to, but it also wants to hold us (the speaker, the immigrants, the people who eat the fruit of defiance).

Gay uses more conventional punctuation in other poems in this book. Even in these poems, however, he continues to elide scenes with one another, moving us with the speed of thought through different associations and yet always returning us to the narrative skeleton upon which the poem hangs. He arranges the long poem “the opening,” for example, in couplets of four to six beats, incorporating all the usual punctuation and capitalizations. The poem begins and ends with the speaker (and his alter ego, Myself) sitting in his car “in the lot of the Kentucky Fried Chicken / on Rt. 413 in Levittown, Pennsylvania,” but moves through a vivid memory of his father bringing food home when he was a child, and then meditations on “murderous birds,” his father’s death, and pruning a peach tree in the back yard, “until, like the old-timers say, the tree is open enough // for a bird to fly through. Which, in fact, they do.” The poem ends with the image of a bird “on the tree’s furthest finger, // resting exactly where I put it, / singing just as I asked it to […] which […] I can see / is what I was pointing to, what I was saying quietly to Myself, / in the parking lot of the KFC in Levittown, Pennsylvania.”

Gay’s poems range far afield from their starting points, and break many of the rules of poetic line. They show me what’s possible when you take risks and let your work go places a more timid poet might pull back from. In “to the mistake,” he tells his students

…who
knows where the poem
will lead you
I tell them to let go
their reins

People often speak of how a good poem will surprise the reader. Gay reminds us that a good poem also surprises the poet.

Works Cited

Gay, Ross. catalog of unabashed gratitude. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. Print.

Image credit: Carlos E Perez, Creative Commons License 2.0, via Flickr.

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