A Celebration of Prosody – The Swoops of Ross Gay’s Breathless Sentences and a Meditation on Joy

American poet Ross Gay, winner of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry

And yet, and yet, when the cold
makes brittle what remains—the spent okra
stalk, the few pepper plants that hang on
through the first two frosts, these little gold
tomatoes—when it withers even the rogue
amaranth, its tousled
mane bent and defeated,
when the silver maple out front has ceased whispering,
and when the bullfrogs nestle into their muddy lairs,
and the peepers go where they go,
and the crows circle,
just down the street, its leaves
too mostly blown off, spindly,
and creaking in the wind,
while the whole world shimmers with death,
hauling all its sugar not perfect globes
the size of a child’s handful,
giddy, it seems
at the sound of ants
slurping beneath, at me
joining them, brushing away wood chip and beetle
before burying my tongue
in the burst pulp
dropped on the earth below,
the persimmon
gives its modest fruit
for yet a while.

Ross Gay from Lace & Pyrite – letters from two gardens by Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatatil, Organic Weapon Arts, 2014

Still reeling from a gorgeous week of writing poetry in Port Townsend, Washington, at the Centrum Writers’ Conference with American poet Carl Phillips, I am reading poems with his voice in my ear saying again and again: poetry is structured language. And I am now architect and engineer looking at structure in all the poems I read! It’s what made me look and look again at Ross Gay’s untitled poem from his collaborative chapbook written with fellow American poet Aimee Nezhukumatatil.

The main structural element in this free verse poem: its one sentence in 27 lines. The huge deferral before completing the first part of the sentence that begins: And yet, and yet, when the cold/ makes brittle what remains. Then, 25 lines later the sentence finishes: the persimmon/ gives its modest fruit/ for yet a while. This is such a great example of what Aimee Nezhukumatatil, his friend and poetic collaborator calls his long swoops of breathless sentences. And a great withholding of the final verb. Such great use of the linkage words, when and while.

And what a lovely repetition (structure, structure) of yet in the last lines, echoing from far away the echo of the and yet and yet in line one and that huge echo of the Japanese poet Issa’s famous haiku written after the death of a son or daughter.

Is it structural, the echo of Issa’s elegiac poem in a poem about fall, the coming of death and cold to the leaves and fruits of summer? Perhaps but for sure all the delayed moments where Gay describes all the stages of endings of the plants and trees in his garden is structured so well it makes the delight of biting into that persimmon at the end so doubly delicious.

I am struck in this poem as well by the structured tension in the poem between sorrow and joy. The sorrow at the ending of summer’s lushness but the joy of eating what remains! That juxtaposition.

And the joy element in the poem seemed even more delightful to me after reading this meditation on joy in a conversation between Ross and his friend and poetic collaborator, Aimee Nezhukumatatil:

I am spending more and more time studying joy, in part because I suspect it is connected to (or one of the expressions of deep awareness of) love. And in part, too, because I think we have an obligation, like an ethical obligation, to study what we love, what we want to preserve and keep with us and grow. Joy strikes me as one of the ways we know we are in the midst of such things. It’s like a finger pointing to the thing, saying “Take care of this!” Saying, “Sing about this!” That might be a gathering of beloveds or it might mean someone giving you directions, both of you using languages you do not speak fluently. It might mean the green birds in Barcelona, or the sound of kids’ voices from somewhere you are not sure of. It might mean the creek like a xylophone when all the frogs hop in. Joy strikes me (it is funny that I am inclined to say that joy strikes me; this is a good strickenness, trust me) as, like, I don’t quite know how to say it, because I was going to say a kind of fabric between us, but it’s more like the way the fabric itself holds together. Joy alerts us to the moments when our alienation diminishes, or, even, disappears. It reminds us of our wholeness, our togetherness—which is the truth.

Ross Gay from Margins – Asian American Writers’ Workshop, August 2018

What a gorgeous meditation! An if you want more of Ross gay’s meditative prose buy his latest collection, The Book of Delights, published earlier this year. In it, a series of lyric essays with lots of joy in them written over the course of a year. And what a yes I say to this:

Joy alerts us to the moments when our alienation diminishes, or, even, disappears. It reminds us of our wholeness, our togetherness—which is the truth.

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