This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. Ross Gay reads at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 7 at McCaw Hall.
Ross Gay has one of the biggest smiles I have ever seen. It spreads from ear to ear across the horizon of his face and then outward in every direction. I’d even go so far to say it is infectious. You might dismiss the previous statements as hyperbole, but they aren’t. Ross is an embodiment of his surname, Gay—as in happy, joyful, almost childlike. Almost, because there is no semblance of naivety or ignorance in his demeanor or speech or writing. It’s not that Ross doesn’t notice the ugly or the bitter, the indifferent or the apathetic, the enraging or the oppressive, it’s that his vision allots room for the beauty and prioritizes it—perhaps in spite of the ugly, maybe even because of it. And like a child on the edge of their seat seeking closer proximity to the object of desire, Ross is leaning, gently, with his whole being. And when he does, he hears and sees what many of us miss because it doesn’t hit us over the head, nor does it want to. There is no hierarchy with this vision. Ross doesn’t condescend, doesn’t make us feel guilty for what or whom we have overlooked. He only wants to share what he seems to have an abundance of and invites us to try taking another look.
In a conversation with The Black Scholar, James Baldwin equated the role of the artist with that of the lover, saying, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” Artists aid us in seeing what is center stage in front of our faces, but from a different angle. They look for the complex, for the intersections. In our current political climate we especially need artists to make us conscious of the Beautiful within the Ugly because we’ve got it in droves. And please don’t take that to mean looking for beauty within oppression (if there is indeed some there, I am not ready to hear of it). No, I’m referring to seeing what being oppressed blinds us to. We work so hard to deny the parts of ourselves that make us “imperfect”: insecurity, jealousy, fear, loneliness, the parts that make us vulnerable, the parts that make us stand out in a negative fashion, the parts that any reminder of in the flesh terrify us. Those parts, in all their tenderness that we are indeed terrified by, are the ones Ross is looking at, and smiling.
Meanwhile, we have a new president who ran an aggressive, hateful, unapologetic campaign, and our country could not be more divided (or perhaps, the mainstream is finally waking up to how divided this country has always been). The White House’s website pages for LGBTQ issues and disability issues and First Nation/Indigenous people’s issues have been taken down. Women and their supporters took to the streets en masse in Washington, D.C. as well as in cities throughout the world to protest said inauguration and all it stands for—which seems to be in layman’s terms, “stomp out the tenderness.” Nearly everywhere I look these days in our society, another example of Ugliness bullying Tenderness is staring me down.
And then comes art like Ross’s poem “Two Bikers Embrace on Broad Street” and the film Moonlight, both created by Black men, both stepping way outside of what is historically prescribed as representational of and for that demographic. Moonlight leans us into the story of a young black boy and what sets him apart from the rest of the boys—even before he has a name for it. We see that same young black boy in the same stereotypical surroundings that plague black boys and men—violence and drugs. And each incarnation of the character—“Little,” the innocent and lonely child; “Chiron,” the outcast teenager; even “Black,” the gangster—is allowed to be seen through the lens of humanity. Moonlight showcases intimacy among black men that is about more than sexuality, per se, yet is inclusive of sexuality without making it an issue or a cautionary tale. Moonlight makes space for the caring and compassion that can and does exist among black men but is never seen on camera.
Typically such tenderness is too terrifying for the small or big screen, and yet every single review I have seen for the film is not just positive but glowing. There is a hunger and a need for this type of work, where the tenderness and beauty that do not fit—that are atypical—are brought into the daylight. Which brings me back to “Two Bikers Embrace…” The poem begins with the line, “Maybe since you’re something like me.” Not “just like me,” but “something like me.” Ross makes our common ground known from the jump-off. And how we, just like he, would’ve almost driven into oncoming traffic to take in the spectacle of two men who, like Moonlight’s “Black,” are “not…to be fucked with” and have, for whatever reason we are not privy to, forgotten the silly rules and limitations of masculinity to lock one another in an embrace that freezes time and reality enough that he, and perhaps we, are transported back to a moment in a hospital—much like the one these two men stand before—of transformative vulnerability that is untranslatable and universally understood. And both of these moments hold us, like they hold him and the bikers, in a stillness that makes listening, like birds do, possible, “as if we had nothing to kill.”
Ross’s work and its casual nature of greeting the reader with tenderness, and his manner of bringing these moments to our attention, makes it all seem so easy, this intimacy and leaning in to appreciate. As if he knows us and we know him. As if we are in this together, and it is no secret. As if we were to knock on his door, he would immediately invite us in and not only offer us a seat and a cup of tea, but he would tell us to put our feet up. It is familial and conveys a trust that is earned, not just given freely.
The title poem to Ross’s book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is a long poem. I might even call it a rant. When I first saw it online I wasn’t sure I had come to the right page; most of the Ross Gay poems I have read are a page, sometimes two pages long. But this is an exception. It is plentiful. So much so he even apologizes for the length of it within the text. He knows it is a rant, and yet he continues on after “I’m sorry,” unabashed and with vigor for no less than seven additional healthy-sized stanzas. Because there is apparently so much to be grateful for.
I admit, in our current political climate, that I was initially turned off by the title. I was in a place of anger and was holding onto its tail because anger has a power to it. But once you release it, the riptide of sadness and vulnerability is there to sweep you up in its current. In its terrifying tenderness.
Gratitude does not ignore the sadness; it simply looks past the surface of it and finds what it hidden. And according to Ross, there is so much to be grateful for, more than enough for all. And here is life, again as there seems to be in all of his writings: the cycle of nature, the birth, the bounty, and the returning to the earth. I often am brought to tears reading Ross’s work, because he sees the shine. The shine of death. The shine of the river. Geese. Visitors putting their feet up. The wheezing chest. The shine of the woman who stops traffic to help a turtle in the road. It aches it is so palpable. So much to be grateful for. He makes us witnesses alongside him, and he is so grateful for that too, even thanks us for it.
I felt compelled to listen to Ross read Catalog to me. I read the text first, but I wanted to see and hear his tender sincerity in real time. I wanted his presence to be something to experience as opposed to something I could hold onto, because that in fact is what taunts gratitude—challenges it, even—the temporary nature of everything. Nothing lasts forever, regardless of our silly human attachments. I am reminded of the Pali word the late S.N. Goenka uses when teaching the meditation technique Vipassana: Anicca—the belief that all things, including the self, are impermanent and constantly changing, or, in other words, the old philosophical saying “this too shall pass.” Attachment is an all-too-human barrier to gratitude. We enjoy or love something and then it ends, leaves us, or, if we take it really personally, abandons us. And then we suddenly find ourselves feeling resentful. “I hate it.” “I never wanted it anyway.” That self-protection veiled as anger takes me back to Moonlight. To Little, Chiron, and Black. Three chapters in one life filled to the brim with suffering and trauma. Especially Black, who carries the weight of both the teen and the little boy with him. I wonder what each would think of Catalog. If the exposure of vulnerability would be too great a risk or if they could allow themselves a respite of grace to take in past the border gates of masculinity.
I wanted Ross’s Catalog to be temporary for me to challenge my appreciation for it. I chose a reading he did at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival. And this version was extra long. It ran almost 15 minutes long and I’m sure he improvised some things as he shared himself with the audience. And for this I was grateful too. His list became something growing, changing, but still rooted in the earthy tenderness of the present moment, where we are always rooted and are sometimes forced to say farewell to the things that remain in the past—like loved ones, like memories.
Catalog is an invitation to see, and be seen. Because Ross wants us to be friends now, forever. And it almost seems possible, even though our world is “so much worse than we think.” But that revelation has lost its fangs, after he looks death in the eye and thanks it and the pacemaker and the scars, thanks the awkwardness, thanks the love that hurts, after he has offered us warm blackberries he picked himself from the earth, and thanked us too. After he has looked at and loved the tenderness beneath our pains and fears so deeply and held them up to the light for us to see, it doesn’t seem so terrifying after all.
Daemond Arrindell is a poet, performer, and teaching artist. He is a faculty member of Freehold Theatre and is co-facilitating a poetry and theater residency at Monroe Correctional Complex for men, in addition to working as a Writer-In-Residence through the Writers in the Schools Program. In 2012, he taught Seattle University’s first course in Slam Poetry. He has performed in venues across the country and has been repeatedly commissioned by both Seattle and Bellevue Arts Museums.