by Ian Kennedy
Continuing with our Poetry Thursdays, over the next few weeks we’ll feature a collection of essays about contemporary and new poetry with a natural theme. As with many Indulgence features, these posts attempt to bring these works into conversation with the social issues that matter today.
I’m interested in nature poetry because of the tired truth that contemporary city life coerces our toes out of the earth and into stockings, shoes and socks. These pedestrian prisons rob us of the ground—the only thing that supports us. Attention to the growing and the living world, though, doesn’t mean moving out of the city; the opening poem in this week’s book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay, concerns the fruits of the earth and heart which can grow and swell and weep in the urban landscape. Nature poems can follow clear, well-traveled path towards human experience, human life, experience of life, or connect us to tracks and trails overgrown and unkempt, but with that same destination.
Verse about plants and animals, though, is often associated with a romantic (Romantic?) dis-association from the world of politics and society. This surprises me. Even beyond the current conflagration about anthropogenic climate change, the themes of connection to earth and the human life-world are a site of politics and the root of society. Mass incarceration and gentrification are both, though not equally, about restricting human access to the ground, to the soil. The atrocities in Flint and Standing Rock are a dangerous entanglement of water, politics, and death. The last 30 years have seen activist groups develop that address these issues, like the National Black Environmental Justice Network, the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, and the Indigenous Environmental Network. I turn to poetry to expand from a thinking of the intersection of socio-political struggle and nature, towards feeling how tightly those two strands are entwined.
If you are skeptical of this possibility, gird yourself and read one of Gay’s most famous poems, written in memory of Eric Garner, “A Small Needful Fact.” That poem isn’t in Catalog, but its spirit–using nature to hold sadness and joy together, to link death to life, and to feel into injustice and holding out hope–also unfurls in that volume. “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” the opening poem mentioned above, is literally an ode to the vivacity of community in Queen Village, Philadelphia. That neighborhood’s late-century decline followed the pattern of destruction which faced urban life, especially black and brown urban life: penetration by interstates, conversion to housing projects, denial of public services, and rising crime and drug use. Now it faces a dubious ‘revival’ in the form of gentrification.
Gay’s poem, though, absorbs those facts into the reality of people sharing and helping each other to enjoy the fruits of our earth. Men and women, the poet included, grin and jostle in such a way that the reader can almost reach one of the tree’s figs themselves .
Other poems of Gay use the routines and materials of the natural world to undo and underline the passage of time, like “Ode to Drinking Water from my Hands.” This skill, Gay tells us, was a legacy from his grandfather, who used water from a hand pump to clean his family gravestones. The poem ends with a leap to the years of that memory:
my grandfather waters the flowers
on the graves
among which are his
and his wife’s
unfinished and patient, glistening
after he rinses the bird shit
from his wife’s
and the pump exhales
and I drink
to the bottom of my fountain
and join him
in his work.
It seems that this narrator joins the work, perhaps, by washing his grandfather’s grave even as his mind turns to a time when they were alive together. The cycle of death and bird shit spewing life is a different take on death. Gay’s collection constantly takes on that theme, from the memorial to Don Belton called “Spoon,” to the titular and final poem, my tears fell often (even when I was reading on the subway).
Throughout Catalog, whether grinning or weeping, Gay kept my attention on how our worlds, in their nature, grow around us. The implication being that we can be part of that lovely unfolding, but only if we appreciate what we’re part of.
Ross Gay is a founding board member of Bloomington Community Orchard, the editor, author, and contributor to many august periodicals, and teaches at Indiana University. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, his most recent book, is available from Pittsburg University Press.