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How gardening makes this poet more observant

Ross Gay is passionate about poetry, gardening and basketball. He pauses when asked if he sees a connection between the three.

“I guess you could say that I think all three things alter our notion of time,” he said. “There’s something about beautiful moments in sports that alters our experience of time. And I’d say the same thing about poetry and gardening. Gardening slows me down. I want to stop and observe everything.”

Gay just moved back to Bloomington, Indiana, after a nine-month fellowship at Harvard University. He says it means his garden has been a bit neglected, although he still expects a good harvest from his peach and fig trees.

Ross has a year-round love affair with his garden. “The madness of spring is so enticing. I love it when things are opening up and emerging from the ground. I also love the middle of summer when fruit is bursting forth, but I even love the garden in the winter when everything is resting,” he says with a laugh.

Gay says he writes poems about things that he has powerful questions about, “questions that a poem won’t answer. But maybe they will further illuminate the question.”

He is currently writing a poem about the legendary basketball player Julius Erving. “He feels like a formative figure in my life. There was something about his moves, something about his imagination.”

Gay is also working on a book about connections between land and race.

Themes of gardening even made it into a poem that was written from news events last year. Gay wrote a poem about Eric Garner, the African-American man who died after New York City police officers put him in a chokehold while trying to arrest him. Gay says he was struck after reading his obituary in The New York Times.

“I think it’s crucial that we remember the lives of people, not their deaths. Our deaths are not our lives.”

A Small Needful Fact

Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.

Gay’s poem “Burial” is about the death of his father and about transformation. You can hear Gay read the poem here or read the text below.

Burial

You’re right, you’re right,
the fertilizer’s good—
it wasn’t a gang of dullards
came up with chucking
a fish in the planting hole
or some mid-wife got lucky
with the placenta—
oh, I’ll plant a tree here!—
and a sudden flush of quince
and jam enough for months—yes,
the magic dust our bodies become
casts spells on the roots
about which a dumber man than me
could tell you the chemical processes,
but it’s just magic to me,
which is why a couple springs ago
when first putting in my two bare root plum trees
out back I took the jar which has become
my father’s house,
and lonely for him and hoping to coax him back
for my mother as much as me,
poured some of him in the planting holes
and he dove in glad for the robust air,
saddling a slight gust
into my nose and mouth,
chuckling as I coughed,
but mostly he disappeared
into the minor yawns in the earth
into which I placed the trees,
splaying wide their roots,
casting the grey dust of my old man
evenly throughout the hole,
replacing then the clods
of dense Indiana soil until the roots
and my father were buried,
watering it in all with one hand
while holding the tree
with the other straight as the flag
to the nation of simple joy
of which my father is now a naturalized citizen,
waving the flag
from his subterranean lair,
the roots curled around him
like shawls or jungle gyms, like
hookahs or the arms of ancestors,
before breast-stroking into the xylem,
riding the elevator up
through the cambium and into the leaves where,
when you put your ear close enough,
you can hear him whisper
good morning, where, if you close your eyes
and push your face you can feel
his stubbly jowls and good lord
this year he was giddy at the first
real fruit set and nestled into the 30 or 40 plums
in the two trees, peering out from the sweet meat
with his hands pressed against the purple skin
like cathedral glass,
and imagine his joy as the sun
wizarded forth those abundant sugars
and I plodded barefoot
and prayerful at the first ripe plum’s swell and blush,
almost weepy conjuring
some surely ponderous verse
to convey this bottomless grace,
you know, oh father oh father kind of stuff,
hundreds of hot air balloons
filling the sky in my chest, replacing his intubated body
listing like a boat keel side up, replacing
the steady stream of water from the one eye
which his brother wiped before removing the tube,
keeping his hand on the forehead
until the last wind in his body wandered off,
while my brother wailed like an animal,
and my mother said, weeping,
it’s ok, it’s ok, you can go honey,
at all of which my father
guffawed by kicking from the first bite
buckets of juice down my chin,
staining one of my two button-down shirts,
the salmon colored silk one, hollering
there’s more of that!
almost dancing now in the plum,
in the tree, the way he did as a person,
bent over and biting his lip
and chucking the one hip out
then the other with his elbows cocked
and fists loosely made
and eyes closed and mouth made trumpet
when he knew he could make you happy
just by being a little silly
and sweet.

From Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”, Pittsburgh Poetry Series (2015)


Ross Gay is the author of three books: “Against Which”, “Bringing the Shovel Down”, and “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude”, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” was also a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and nominated for an NAACP Image Award. He is a founding editor, with Karissa Chen and Patrick Rosal, of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin, in addition to being an editor with the chapbook presses Q Avenue and Ledge Mule Press. Ross is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit, free-fruit-for-all food justice project. He has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Ross teaches at Indiana University.

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