Joy Is Something You Can Wear – Two Poems by Ghanaian Poet Tryphena Yeboah and a Poem and Quotes by American Poet Ross Gay


I need you to understand:
my joy is something you can wear, too.
Throw it over your head like a blessing bestowed,
keep it wrapped around your body in the cold nights.
In your loneliness, I am there. Warmth is love.
Love is as open as the mouth of God and we can both feast.
A big table only means I have more food for myself and you, too,
and asks why do you sit so far away? Pull up a chair.
Bitterness scratches its body until it’s sore.
Walks around the room pointing at everything
it wished it owned. As if two hearts couldn’t leap
over the joy of one and two voices in an empty room
were incapable of making music. As if, should I begin to grow
out of myself, my stretched hands wouldn’t make your loneliness
lose its name. I say this with love:
a joy that is shared never runs out and my hands stay open.

Tryphena Yeboah from A Mouthful of Home from New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba), Akashic Books, 2020

Here we are: day eight of National Poetry Month and I am so aware that the theme chosen for this year’s month-long celebration by the League of Canadian Poets is joy.

Joy, what a provocative theme, when I know for me I live so many moments in each day right now with a deep unhappiness from the rancour and strife all around me. A time of brutal impositions on people and countries of what others think is right for them.

Ghanaian poet Tryphena Yeboah. Photo Credit: Narrative Magazine

But today as I sat down to write and joy came to heart and mind I thought of two black poets who understand something profound about joy. How it often has its ground in its opposites: loneliness, bitterness, sorrow, pain. The poets: from Ghana (but currently studying and working in Lincoln, Nebraska) Tryphena Yeboah and the American essayist and poet Ross Gay.

I cherish the poem above by Tryphena. A shout-out poem/prayer of joy that celebrates a joy so large it is not afraid to place it in a poem with loneliness and bitterness. And this last sentence: I say this with love:/ a joy that is shared never runs out and my hands stay open.

And here I think of something that Ross Gay, whom I think of as the apostle of joy, wrote a few years ago. Joy’s connection to love and to togetherness. Something shared as in Tryphena’s last line of her poem. Here is Ross:

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…..

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

At a time of huge disorientation and alienation all around us these lines anchor me, to me and the present: 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. What a reminder coming at a time when so much of political wrangles and bitterness links us to our separateness from others.

I shared this quote and others by Ross, which I will share here as well, in a pre-retreat adventure for a poetry-as-prayer retreat held in Calgary last December. I was reminded of this when I saw the same poem I used in that retreat by Ross featured in a post this past week in The Marginalian curated by Maria Popova. Here is Ross’s bursting-with-erotic-joy poem based on Ross’s bursting-with-life back yard:


Call it sloth; call it sleaze;
call it bummery if you please;
I’ll call it patience;
I’ll call it joy, this,
my supine congress
with the newly yawning grass
and beetles chittering
in their offices
beneath me, as I
nearly drifting to dream
admire this so-called weed which,
if I guarded with teeth bared
my garden of all alien breeds,
if I was all knife and axe
and made a life of hacking
would not have burst gorgeous forth and beckoning
these sort of phallic spires
ringleted by these sort of vaginal blooms
which the new bees, being bees, heed;
and yes, it is spring, if you can’t tell
from the words my mind makes
of the world, and everything
makes me mildly or more
hungry—the worm turning
in the leaf mold; the pear blooms
howling forth their pungence
like a choir of wet-dreamed boys
hiking up their skirts; even
the neighbor cat’s shimmy
through the grin in the fence,
and the way this bee
before me after whispering
in my ear dips her head
into those dainty lips
not exactly like one entering a chapel
and friends
as if that wasn’t enough
blooms forth with her forehead dusted gold
like she has been licked
and so blessed
by the kind of God
to whom this poem is prayer.

Ross Gay from catalog of unabashed gratitude, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015

This what I said about this poem in my pre-retreat handout:

American poet Ross Gay

What a robust or dare I say Whitmanesque prayer of joy, of gratitude, celebrating our gorgeously sensual world! Perhaps, even shocking, with its naming of sexual parts but I celebrate it as a poem/prayer unafraid to find joy in our bodies and the figurative and literal birds and bees. Ross’s poem may feel more graphic in its naming but this is our world and without sex there would be no poets to write prayers and poems.

I would call Ross’s poem a no-holds-barred joy/praise poem and he is well known for poems like this. Ross made a huge splash with his 2015 poetry collection catalog of unabashed gratitude which won the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2015 NAACP Image Awards and The National Book Award. It was followed by the essay collection The Book of Delights in 2019, the long book-length poem BeHolding in 2020 and late last year, another collection of essays Inciting Joy.

Ross, as I mentioned above, sees joy with its twin sorrow as he writes in his latest book: Inciting Joy:

“…we often think of joy as meaning “without pain,” or “without sorrow”— which, to reiterate, our consumer culture has us believing is a state of being that we could buy— not only as it is sometimes considered “unserious” or frivolous to talk about joy (i.e. But there’s so much pain in the world!), but this definition also suggests that someone might be able to live without —o r a more accurate phrase is free of — heart break or sorrow.

But what happens if joy is not separate from pain? What if joy and pain are fundamentally tangled up with one another? Or even more to the point,, what if joy is not only entangled with pain, or suffering or sorrow, but is also what emerges from how we care for each other through these things? What if joy, instead of refuge or relief from heartbreak, is what effloresces from us as we help each other carry our heartbreaks? Which is to say, what if joy needs sorrow, or what Zadie Smith in her essay “Joy” calls ‘the intolerable,’ for its existence.

If it sounds like I’m advocating for sorrow, nope. Besides, sorrow (unlike joy, apparently) doesn’t need an advocate….

But what I am advocating and adamantly so, is that rather than quarantining ourselves or running from sorrow, rather than warring with sorrow, we lay down our swords and let sorrow in.

Ross Gay from Inciting Joy, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2022″

Why this need, today, to share Ross’s stirring words? It may be because this is Easter weekend and I have the idea of suffering and resurrection on my mind. The sorrow and joy of these things. Easter, this time in the Christian calendar that honours the death of Christ on the cross and celebrates, three days later, his resurrection. Out of deep sorrow, deep and hopeful joy. He died. He is risen.

And as a poet, not these days, as an active “church” Christian but still anchored by many of its truths, I can take the profound metaphor and hope behind Easter and cherish the resurrections I have experienced in my life. What are yours? I think of my resurrections from times of deep broken-heartedness, after two divorces; times after job losses; times when what seemed hopeless became a hope and became real.

And thinking of the resurrections in our daily lives I thought of this gorgeous poem by Tryphena which I featured in a previous blog post last year. There is a profound sense for me in this poem of the speaker in the poem not just coming out of the darkness of sleep but coming out of a deep darkness in her life, especially from her past. The deep and inspiring hope in this poem:


The day ripens on my face.
The opening of my eyes is the plucking of stars
and I want to keep the glistening thing forever
but my hands, I need them empty to carry other dreams like
pulling myself out of bed,
washing my face and carving today’s date into walls
as another triumphant exit from death, numbness—
the crashing state of absence from the here and now.
Suppose you enter a room to find me sitting across a window
looking into tomorrow,
will you touch me on the shoulder to wake me up
or bring me closer to you to feed your loneliness?
Suppose instead of turning my neck to face you
I crawl out of the window and run toward the light,
will you follow me not knowing where I am going or
will you pull me back by the arm, dragging me back to yourself?
My heart shall keep its promise of staying soft and open.
I’m versed inside a language that demands that before I speak,
I weigh the words with my tongue. Must be salt. Must be water.
Everyone speaks of never returning to the places that almost drowned them.
Meanwhile, I am a girl moved by the shape of scars.
If I want to know how a wound made a home out of me,
does it mean I enjoyed the pain?
I want the joy of healing pulsing close to my skin
My body, having learned resurrection, more tender than before.
I want a tangible appreciation of life.
I stretch my hand and the day is a fruit I bite into,
a kind of sweetness I can wear without growing tired;
a cascading joy enough to keep me believing that no door is an accident.
You walk through some only to meet yourself.

Tryphena Yeboah from A Mouthful of Home from New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Saba), ibid

I so appreciate how Trphena makes of pain and joy, makes of resurrection, something very real. And how she associates pain and joy as does Ross:

Meanwhile, I am a girl moved by the shape of scars.
If I want to know how a wound made a home out of me,
does it mean I enjoyed the pain?
I want the joy of healing pulsing close to my skin
My body, having learned resurrection, more tender than before.

As this idea of a resurrection we can find inside our living. Not just inside a physical dying. I think of the extraordinarly brave men and women who seek recovery from addictions. Seek that resurrection. And what comes to mind are the men and women I worked with at a drug and alcohol addiction center where I worked last week. As they seek to make a:

………….triumphant exit from death, numbness—
the crashing state of absence from the here and now.

What I saw as they read brand new poems in our generative poetry therapy session. As I saw hope in faces, triggered by hope expressed in a poem, fight with the fear of knowing how they have fallen back into addiction before. The fear of believing the hope could be real only to have it turn into the hopelessness of addiction. My hope that this time these brave people might find lasting hope and resurrection. Lasting recovery. Or at least a recovery that lasts long enough they will have the courage to seek it again.

On this so-called Holy Saturday in the Christian tradition. A day between the dark of Christ’s death and the light of his resurrection I choose joy and light. I choose recovery from despair and sadness. I choose a belief in the resurrections of the here and now.


  1. Posted April 8, 2023 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Oh Richard, without realizing it, I was yearning for wisdom in this season of resurrection. Many years away from the church but a supplicant nonetheless. Your generous outpouring of poetry and love was an ecstatic response to my prayer. I can’t thank you enough.

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted April 10, 2023 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Love you saying: a supplicant nonetheless. How I feel, too. Not always sure who I a supplicant of or to! But to some force a lot bigger than me that’s for sure!

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