by Ross Gay
I claimed awhile back that I won’t be writing about the poetry I read, but … that’s not true! I just finished Ross Gay’s book-length poem Be Holding (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020) and want to tell you about it. It’s the “book-length poem” part that makes it feel possible to write this; having something to say about a collection of poems seems daunting, but this is one work that holds together in a way I can wrap my mind around.
I loved the book so much. Gay uses a clip of basketball player Julius Erving — Dr. J — doing his famous baseline scoop as the subject that holds the poem together. From there he ranges in many directions, bringing in neighborhood basketball games, family history, the Middle Passage, the photograph from the Library of Congress that is the book’s cover, and more. Let me assure you that if you are like me and don’t know much about basketball, you can still read and love this book. It’s an appreciation of Dr. J’s athletic brilliance, and it’s a meditation on flight, photography, history, family, love, and human connection. It is 98 pages — pages that read very fast — and contains so much.
If you have read Gay’s The Book of Delights — and you should! It’s one of my favorite books ever — you’ll be familiar with how his writing manages to be warm and even comforting but never glib or easy and never looking away from pain and suffering. His poetry has that same feeling: it is so full of love for the people that populate it, while also carrying in it tragedy and loss. Gay somehow moves easily back and forth between subjects and moods; the presence of darkness makes the light warmer, and the light makes the darkness more intense.
The poem’s speaker watches the Dr. J clip over and over again, late into the night, and takes the whole poem to describe baseline scoop in minute detail. Digressions take us to other places and times, but the book always returns to Dr. J. The speaker notes the time upon return, and, as the poem goes on, the night changes to early morning.
The poem’s voice is conversational, familiar, inviting us to look where he has been looking, and asking us to question with him what “looking” — beholding — means. The book is made of digressions, not only on a larger structural level as it moves away from and back to Dr. J, but also on a sentence level. Gay uses very few periods; instead, phrase flows into phrase in long run-ons that keep us moving through the text. It’s a long poem that is hard to put down (and also hard to quote from):
and so Doc leapt,
he left his feet,
which means more or less jumping with the ball
with nowhere to go, and which
we’re warned against by coaches
from day one
for the ensuing requisite stupid pass
or more simply though no less stupid
travel, also called walking,
which the leaping often leads to,
keep your feet!
again and again,
which makes the leaping — leaving your feet —
the way in certain places, certain
countries, or countries inside of countries,
you must leave by foot with nowhere to go,
which there is,
and Doc, you should note, after the one dribble
clasps the ball with only his right hand
without once at all in any shape or form
using the left, which, among other things,
friends, differentiates this from all
the descendent moves—
And on it goes. Unless I missed one, the first period I encountered is on page 39, close to halfway through the book, and it calls attention to itself, coming at a point of darkness where the speaker calls for us to breathe in order to gain composure to move on again.
You can see in the quotation above how Gay veers into dark territory in his reference to refugees traveling by foot, and then turns back to basketball right away. The whole book is like this. Dr. J’s flying leads to the legend of the flying African (more here). Thinking about people who fly/fall leads to Africans tossed overboard slave ships for insurance money. It leads to contemplating the people falling through the air in the famous photograph of the fire escape collapse. It leads to the aviator glasses the boy in the cover photo is wearing and his grandmother’s fierce gaze at the one taking their picture.
All of this leads to thinking deeply about what it means to look, to photograph, to “shoot” a picture. Who is doing the “shooting” and why? When is looking a celebration or a desecration? How can we “behold” other people and “be holding” them at the same time? How do we care for and hold each other? How, specifically, do Black people, given their history in the U.S., care for and hold each other?
The word “hold” also alludes to a ship’s cargo, its holding area, which brings us back to slave ships and the darkness lurking in a word that can otherwise be so warm. In his acknowledgments section, which is lengthy and discusses many books, he praises Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, about, among other things, metaphors of “the wake” and “the hold.” I love how a poem that contains so much within it, also sends us out into the world toward so many other ideas, books, and images. Somehow Be Holding is easy to read while leaving me feeling that there is so much more to find in it. I didn’t understand all the twists and turns it takes, but that is inspiring, not frustrating. It’s a book that is full of emotion — it made me cry — and even though I’m suspicious of earnestness and displays of feeling and don’t want to be made to cry, I was completely won over.
Publishing This Week
New small-press books out this week that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. All quotations below from the publisher:
Variations on the Body by María Ospina, translated by Heather Cleary (Coffee House Press): “In six subtly connected vignettes, Variations on the Body explores the obsessions, desires, and idiosyncrasies of women and girls from every level of Colombian society.”
The Beginners by Anne Serre, translated by Mark Hutchinson (New Directions): “Anna has been living happily for twenty years with loving, sturdy, outgoing Guillaume when she suddenly (truly at first sight) falls in love with Thomas…unpredictable, sensual, exhilarating, oddly moral, perverse, absurd.”
Late Summer by Luiz Ruffato, translated by Julia Sanches (Other Press): “Late Summer can be read as both the realistic story of a displaced man tortured by his unsuccessful attempt to redeem his past, and as a portrait of contemporary society, in which social classes have ruptured any form of dialogue between them.”
New on the TBR
New books acquired:
Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor (Riverhead, 2021): a collection of links stories “set among young creatives in the American Midwest.” I loved Taylor’s novel Real Life.
Notes of a Crocodile by Qiu Miaojin, translated by Bonnie Huie (NYRB, 2017, originally published in 1994): I picked this up to read along with the next A Public Space #APStogether event. It’s “coming-of-age novel about queer teenagers in Taiwan.”
Added to my wishlist (books that have caught my eye but I don’t yet own):
The Female Complaint and Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant (Duke University Press, 2008 and 2011): Berlant just recently died and people’s tweets about how important their books were to them caught my interest.
Because She Never Asked by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Valerie Miles (New Directions, 2015): I’ve never read Vila-Matas before and this one caught my attention because Kate Zambreno mentioned it as an influence.
Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil (Nightboat Books, 2015): I read this back in 2016 when — to the surprise of a lot of people — it was a contender in the Tournament of Books. I returned to it now because Kate Zambreno writes and talks so much about how much she admires Kapil. I didn’t fully understand Ban en Banlieue back in 2016 and I don’t fully understand it now, but I do appreciate its brilliance and beauty.
Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul? by Jesse McCarthy (Liveright, 2021): I loved this book, and I’m sad that I probably won’t have time to write at length about it. It’s a super-smart collection of essays about race and culture. I highly recommend it.
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri, translated by the author (Knopf, 2021): So far, about 50 pages into it, I’m loving this novel about a woman walking around an unnamed city, probably Rome, thinking about solitude.
The Cormac Report
He’s probably forgotten it by now, but last week Cormac announced he wanted to write a book called Little Puppies. When we asked him for more details, he said it would be part of the Dog Man series — which uses puns for titles like A Tale of Two Kitties, For Whom the Ball Rolls, and Fetch-22 — and the idea was inspired by Little Women. I didn’t even know he knew about Little Women! I love the idea and definitely think Dav Pilkey needs to be in touch. Any of you happen to know him?
Have a good week everyone! I probably won’t write the next couple weeks because I’ll be traveling, so see you around the end of July!