Someone sent me a copy of “A Small Needful Fact”, its top right corner torn just a little into the words. It was the first poem of Ross Gay’s I had ever read, and since, I’ve been hooked by this poet-community orchardist. One year, I memorized and performed his “Ode to the Puritan in Me” for one of our poetry classes. It’s a poem whose words seem to tumble from themselves, coming from some unsourceable place, and trilling outwards until no reader can deny an impossible beauty in the world. Gay somehow manages to take the smallest, most personal moments of our existence, and string them out further, and further, making the reader gasp and feel the sky somewhere above them, the rich dirt somewhere beneath them.
As a nature lover, there was something instinctually grabbing about Gay’s poetry. He often draws from his experiences as a community orchardist in Indiana in his most recent book, A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude. As the title suggests, the natural world becomes a leaping-off point for entirely down-to-earth spiritual revelations in the form of deep gratitude. Gay works with trees and dirt and fruit to speak beyond the categories of natural and human. “A Small Needful Fact” is a response to Eric Garner, but instead of the brutality of his death, we get this delicate image of Garner’s hands, working for the “Parks and Rec. / Horticulture Department…put gently into the earth / some plants”. The image of these plants and all they serve is developed to a heartbreaking realization through the course of the poem of the fact of a life that was lost. It’s a political poem that sees, undeniably, human kind with a compassion more akin to a monk than a poet.
On a level of craft, Gay tends to linger on form that enforces the overwhelming revelation so often present in his work. In A Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, he tends towards long poems, covering several pages, but with clipped line breaks. Most notably, “Ode to the Fig Tree on Ninth and Christian”, one of the more recognized poems from the collection, with lines of about three words apiece. From the opening moment of the poem: Tumbling through the / city in my / mind”, the short lines are serving a clear purpose. This is truly a tumbling piece, a man slipping from city to tree to sweet figs to all the people standing around him, and onward to much larger ideas. The line breaks keep the reader digging, rushing along to see what comes next, and so we are kept in tempo with the speaker.
Reading this piece on the verge of my own true poetry education, I began to realize the purpose poetry serves in a world that has prose to tell stories and communicate characters. A poem cannot be really read without becoming part of its collective experience. The form often forces us to do so in an immediate sense. The associative leaps, a few moments later, really take the brain spinning into another experience, accepting the limitations and lens of this new world by becoming it. Inspired by Gay, I began to take risks with form: at first with the obvious line clipping, and then by gently weaning my narrative frame of thought towards something more honest to the human thought, allow myself to take some leaps when writing.
Ross Gay teaches me, every time I read his lines, of a larger and deeper unity in the world than we can normally imagine. He also teaches me, as a writer, to expand my definition of what will connect with a reader, and become more honest on the page: whether that honesty is through form or subject.
– Ana Shaw, Senior Editors-in-Cheif