Ross Gay, 2017 Massachusetts Poetry Festival Headliner: Sonic Intoxication
by heather hughes | April 2017
Quite probably, possibly, you know Ross Gay’s name or his poems or both. If you are fortunate, you’ve seen him read before; but if you haven’t, you’re still fortunate, because here comes your chance at Mass Poetry Fest 2017. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Gay’s third collection, has been much-feted since its publication in 2015; it was a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry, and winner of both the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry and the Kingsley Tufts Award. He pulls off what seems, to me, perhaps the most difficult of poetic feats: while making space for sorrow and especially death, Ross Gay captures on the page the glories of sharing this planet with flora and fauna and human, the sheer joy of existence.
I could point to a number of ways I see Gay accomplishing this in poem after poem throughout Catalog. But what I frequently come back to when I reread this book (as I do, often), is the obvious, vibrant, and visceral pleasure the poet takes in the sounds of language. If you’ll indulge me, as Gay so often breaks the fourth wall to ask his reader to do, I’d like to catalog here just two of the book’s many breathtaking moments of linguistic play.
“Ode to Sleeping in My Clothes” is (as many of the poems in Catalog are) a single, tumbling sentence of a poem, a syntactic strategy that highlights the accretion of emotional energy. Here, the poet confesses to the happiness he finds in nodding off for the night without even taking off his socks. Gay riffs on the trope of likeness between sleep and death:
so many of the dead
I must be smiling
there in my denim
and cotton sarcophagus
slightly rank from the day.
I can’t resist saying this aloud no matter how many times I read the poem or where I might be. I can’t resist smiling myself at the pleasurable sonic juxtaposition of “cotton sarcophagus” – and what a compressed and densely allusive image these few words evoke! – and how those hard ‘c’ sounds set the stage for the surprising “rank,” which never fails to wrinkle my nose and twist my mouth ever so slightly while I speak the line. As a reader, I physically participate in the poem’s meaning, I enact it within my own body, because of Gay’s careful crafting of sound.
In the beginning of “The Opening,” a long poem wherein the “I” confronts “Myself” and his mother’s grief and his own bottled sadness and his father’s death, the poem’s speaker has pulled over into the parking lot of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. The “I” is plunged into a memory of childhood fast food pleasure shared with his father, who occasionally would:
bring home a bucket of hot wings to share
just with me, his comrade in spice and grease and gore,
rattling the little charnel house like a bell
to indicate a joy impending and plucking
the lid to waft the scent toward the vents
into my room where I’d catch a whiff and toss my Avengers
comic to vault down the steps before high-fiving
my smiling old man, stinking of his own hours working
at the Roy Rogers down on Cottman, and plunge into the scuzzy muck.
Again, I want to revel in the sensory enjoyment that the language itself recreates. Throughout the poem, as this small sample shows, Gay has chosen words that chime and rub against one another incessantly. There’s the progression of “spice and grease and gore,” where the off-rhyme of “spice” and “grease” slides effortlessly into the near-alliteration of “grease” and “gore.” And then the decadent consonances and rhymes of “rattling” and “little” and “charnel” and “bell” in the next line, which ring and rattle in their own right. Followed by the sonic progression from “waft” to “scent” to “vents” to “whiff” that mimics the way the fried fragrance travels across the house. And though I am skipping over a number of other linguistic indulgences, there’s unbridled tactile joy in the rough assonance of “u” sounds and consonant clusters of that “plunge into the scuzzy muck.” I know how much this simple memory means to the narrator and to the poem’s narrative because of how deeply attentive the language is to the totality of that experience – the taste, the smell, the feel of the fried chicken – all part of both the anticipation and the fulfillment of a bond with the deceased father.
I could, like Ross Gay does in many poems, go on at greater length. I could keep gushing about these poems and others and their aural abundance. But I hope instead that you will discover them for yourself, if you haven’t already, or luxuriate in them again.
heather hughes is a contributing writer for Mass Poetry who hangs her heart in Somerville and Miami. Poems recently appear or are forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Queen Mob's Tea House, and Vinyl Poetry, among other journals. She MLA-ed in foreign literature at Harvard University Extension and MFA-ed at Lesley University. Her other adventures include working in academic publishing and creating letterpress prints. She never outgrew her science fiction & fantasy obsession. Find her online at birdmaddgirl.com.