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this little one's snout in the bones
this little one's snout
in the bones with its tongue
out this little one's
moan the spine
of the night this one's
ruddy cock made stiff by the screams
this one wet-faced this little one
with a face like a boy's this
one shriveled to the size of a rat
its eyes replaced with flies that
one's mother with her teats
dried up snapping
at the flies in her little one's eyes
this little one with its snout draws a circle
in the dirt around his dead
and dying this one with gristle
in his teeth pisses in the circle
where the dead lay dying
this little one snatches
food from the sick
and drops it at the fat
one's feet who
waddles when he walks
who opens his
mouth to excrete this
little one's teeth glint
in the rain this one's
eyes stay locked this
one's ears bend
to the pain this little one chews
on rocks this one drags
by their necks the old
and weak to
the holes he's dug
and fills the open graves
of their mouths
with mud this little one
snaps birds from the air
chewing their wings
and flight this one
gnaws its tongue this
one eats the lice
this little one sat curled
in a lump pretending
he was dead that little
one curled up
in a hole and couldn't
quiet her head
these little ones crawling
from their holes to
study the patterns of the bones
spilled and splayed and
broke as a language
as a king on fire in
his home the little ones crawling
from their holes to read
the story of the bones
to set the king on fire
in his home
The father slurped the stew
wide-eyed and wolf-mouthed
as was his way to do
at these meals they made
him since their ma was gone:
his eyes white as stone,
the gruel and sweat run down
his neck. Moaning like a bull
elk in rut. They sat mute
at dinner since he gagged
their ma with the steel bit
priced from the dead horse
the day after the night
she woke aquake with sweat,
her hand thrust toward the dark
like a blind man in debt:
her dreams of drought and plagues
of flies and wolves with his face
eating themselves. Like a crow
it flew from her. To his face.
The three so thin their small
eyes swollen to moons,
their arm hair staunch and their stretched
bellies' skin taut as tomb-
stones. Mute since the youngest who,
is his gait and crooked
grin most favored the man,
asked why is mommy dressed
like the dead horse landing
on his back with a jaw
that clicked for good and his left
eye gone all but blind. All
three searched for glass the road-
side night by night begun
the night after the day
their ma, gagged and bound,
was dragged lucid, steel-mouthed,
singing of drought and flies
and wolves as the skin broke
at the corners of her smile
and like an unnamed bird
looking full into each
child's eyes the wolves, the wolves
she sang until she was reached
by the father still with song
beneath the black hood
before he cinched it tight
and she was gone. The moon
shone through each bottle or jar
as they held them to the sky
to be sure the glass was pure.
Through the harvest time
they gathered. Through the snows
and well into what should
have been the bloom time too
hiding the glass in burlap sacks
in the culvert their mother's
wild bird song of wolves
and plague through nightmares
and fevers and storms
lulling them to sleep the wolves
smashing first in the sacks
with rocks and never a word
the bottles into shards
and these million shards
with their mother's stone mortar
and pestle still smelling
faintly of black pepper
and thyme and even more
faintly of her breath and hands
they ground into a billion
filaments, sucking at
the tiny wrath the glass
made on their hands, the wrath
their hands made of their tongues.
If you drew close enough
to the small mound of glass
shimmering in the oldest's
pockets you would likely hear
chiming like a thousand
tongueless churchbells, like
an overgrown grave,
like our hands as we chop
carrots and celery
and the last soft onion,
each of us racked with hunger
as a bird's flaccid corpse bobs
in the roil pouring spoon
after spoon after spoon after
spoon one after the next
the invisible blades
of light glinting at last
into the stew. Hallelujah.
The Lion and the Gazelle
Because the bullet was a dream before it was a bird.
Because the bullet was a dream before
it alighted in the child's body while he looked
at a pigeon wobbling through the air.
Because the child has moved into photographs
on mantles and the dreamer's hands
are folded in his lap and have not felt
a dead child's face as the blood empties from it.
Because this is not a dream. Because it is
not a dream that a lioness is laying
on its side while a gazelle pumps her tit
with its spindly neck and dust lifts around them
as the lioness licks the fawn's boney skull.
That the lioness was alone and her two cubs
had starved to death. That she was wandering
across the scorched plain and found
the fawn bleating and aquiver
beneath some shrub. That, salivating, the mother
nosed the fawn to its feet and its
genetic proclivities toward the flight and quick
disappeared despite the wet teeth above it.
That it was their haphazard search for some
hoped-for oasis. Their night sky, the lion,
and the fawn. If you've never fingered
the feathery neck of some small animal, if you've
never curled beside your weaker sibling
making his lips bleed, if you've not been pinned
to the damp earth while someone decided what
this cigarette, what this blade, what this shivering
hand, and if your father never entered a drunken
rage and emptied his gun into the family dog
watching the small bones of your face go slack.
If you've not awoken from a dream wet-faced
and weeping and wondered what gasp,
what wretch and rack you might o and might
be done unto you. Wondering what
have we done. Never contemplated
the bullet's song entering the body
or the boy turned moan turned thousand
dust motes gathering on a photo on a mantle.
The mother looking away
As the fawn tugs at the dry nub. As the suckling
grows weaker. And the small lay quiet
in the dust not twitching for flies, and her mother
curled around her, watching the night move
across the plains. And the sound of the flies
doing their patient work. And the lion's heavy
ashen panting against the night.
-from Bringing the Shovel Down
Ross Gay's books of poems include Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, MARGIE, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He has also, with the artist Kimberly Thomas, collaborated on several artists' books: The Cold Loop, BRN2HNT and The Bullet. He is an editor with the chapbook press Q Avenue. Ross Gay received his M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and his Ph.D. in American Literature from Temple University. He teaches in the low-residency M.F.A. program in poetry at Drew University, and in Indiana University's English department.
A "Mini-Review" of Ross Gay's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Zachary Macholz
Ross Gay’s poetry is not like most of the contemporary poetry you may have read. It doesn’t try to be clever. It doesn’t gorge itself on irony. It doesn’t look down on or sideways at the world. Instead, it stares unflinchingly and unapologetically at the world, especially some of its more unusual places and situations. Writing directly about sometimes bizarre stories, Gay chooses to tell the earnest truth, it seems, in each of his poems, and gives that truth momentum through the use of heavily stressed lines, rich assonance and alliteration, a willingness to experiment with the purpose of the linear unit, and an undeniably infectious love for what he sees, despite—or perhaps because of—all its strangeness.
“Nursery,” the excerpt from Bringing the Shovel Down, demonstrates the way Gay likes to play with our expectations for lineation and punctuation. The excerpt is entirely without punctuation and relies on the pauses created by line breaks to develop a rhythm. The line breaks also serve as a means of breaking up the repetitive use of the phrase “this little one’s,” which appears throughout the length of the poem. In addition to the momentum created by the line breaks and lack of punctuation, the poem gains even more speed with its use of rhyme, also highlighted frequently by the line breaks. With its short lines, rhymes, and utter lack of punctuation, this is a poem that might threaten to race its way down the page, but repetition saves it and keeps its rhythmic momentum hard-charging, but not reckless. Ross Gay is a poet in control of his lines.
In “Glass,” Gay again plays with the line and challenges its integrity. Each line isn’t just a line within the larger poem, it’s also its own self-contained unit of meaning. Consider lines that include the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next, and how those two halves fit together suggestively, lines like “eating themselves. Like a crow,” “stones. Mute since the youngest who,” and “they gathered. Through the snows.” There’s also a wonderful rhythm to these lines, built on the interplay of line breaks and rhymes: “the day after the night / she woke aquake with sweat, / her hand thrust toward the dark // like a blind man in debt: / her dreams of drought and plagues / of flies and wolves with his face…” Or later: “the bottle into shards / and these million shards / with their mother’s stone mortar // and pestle still smelling / faintly of black pepper / and thyme even and even more…” We can also see, particularly in these last two examples, Gay’s love of packing lines quite full with stressed syllables.
“The Lion and the Gazelle,” when considered in the context of the other poems, demonstrates Gay’s versatility. “Nursery,” is one single stanza mainly of short lines, but “Glass,” is a bit more structured with its tercets. “The Lion and the Gazelle,” however, is perhaps the most familiar-looking form of any of the poem: couplets with most lines between eight and twelve syllables. Though the form has changed and the subject matter remains a little weird or even disturbing (“…and if your father never entered a drunken // rage and emptied his gun into the family dog…”), Gay uses repetition and rhyme to keep the poem moving forward. He paces that momentum with the use of the couplet: “…a dead child’s face as the blood empties from it. // Because this is not a dream. Because it is / not a dream that a lioness is laying // on its side while a gazelle pumps her tit…” We accept the image and the story’s details, however unusual, because the story is being told in a perfect amount of detail by someone who is in complete control of each sentence and line, revealing new information to us exactly when we need it.
Ross Gay’s work is truly pleasing, both psychically and to the ear. The strange-but-true-feeling situations and stories he relates are described in perfect detail, and are crafted with a great deal of love. This is not a poet who is uncomfortable with the world’s uglier side. Instead, Ross Gay is a poet who knows the world intimately and loves it passionately, even—and sometimes especially—its faults.
A Review of Ross Gay's Bringing the Shovel Down by Thomas Devany, first published in The Philadelphia Inquirer
Ross Gay's second poetry collection, Bringing the Shovel Down, is an artfully honest book. Many of the poems are direct meditations on violence, compassion, and questions of conscience. Gay, now an assistant professor of English at Indiana University, grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and earned his Ph.D. in American literature at Temple University. It is revealing that his book offers two versions of the title poem, setting up conflicting ideals that run throughout the collection. In the first poem, a dog is killed; in the second, the poet bonds with the animal and spares its life.
"Learning to Speak" displays Gay's tendency to treat the intersections between life and death both as daily occurrences and as poignant occasions of pathos:
you know we are at every turn - laundromat, subway,
courtroom, ball game - shoulder to shoulder
face to face with someone who didn't
shoot the dog or burn the kid,
who didn't fist his rage across someone's face -
at every turn we are in the midst of these small
lanterns lighting a road away
Gay's poems are "small lanterns" of "lighting" and more.
Gay's prose poems are impressive. According to Charles Simic, the prose poem "is the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist, but it does." Simic's formulation is useful in engaging the complicated currents that run through Gay's work. Eight prose poems are titled "The Syndromes." As the title indicates, all are written in the nomenclature of doctors and diagnosis, medical definition. Some include: Cartographer's Syndrome, Undertaker's Syndrome, and one is called "Raining or Washing."
Perhaps the most revealing of the series is "The Syndromes: Doubling":
. . . the layered and concurrent seeing of two discrete versions of a given object or person: the man's briefcase is also an intricately woven shawl of bones; the sleeping child's face is also crawling with ants; a flagpole is also a gallows. In the most acute presentation, one's hands are also one's hands.
Through direct engagement of contradictory impulses he examines culture, himself, and even his own poetic materials. Of course it's satisfying how familiar objects such as a man's briefcase or a flagpole can give way to the unexpected, but Gay does not stop there.In a book full of doubling, perhaps it's understandable that W.E.B. Du Bois should play a role, In his landmark book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois defines the "double consciousness" of the African American: "One ever feels his two-ness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings."
It's tricky waters to over-read Du Bois in Gay's poems. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the poems point to W.E.B. Du Bois rather than being purely Du Boisian (if there is anything pure about what Du Bois is writing about).
Gay can turn a phrase. But in his attempts to expand Du Bois' definition of alienation as seeing one's self through "the eyes of others," his words become less nuanced. A poem given a title like "Some Instruction on Black Masculinity Offered to My Black Friend by the White Woman He Briefly Dated: A Monologue" too easily belies its own purpose. This is textbook Du Bois, who in fact makes an appearance in the poem. In the voice of a white woman, Gay writes:
What does your Hegel say about funk? Your Du Bois (pronounced Du BWAH)? See, I only date hood. My last man? He never met his father. Four women, six kids. Three of whom are named after luxury cars. Child support? Do you know anything about your people?
At Gay's best, the "two-ness" in the poems remains matter-of-fact. To his great credit, the understated conviction of the poems generates new meanings and possibilities without avoiding or denying their contradictions.
An Interview with Ross Gay by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: There aren't many poems featured on PoemoftheWeek.org that don't utilize punctuation. It's not that I dislike poems without punctuation; I just don't see why it is avoided in certain poems over others. Why no punctuation in "Nursery?" How does avoiding punctuation serve this poem?
Ross Gay: To me punctuation is usually an indication of a kind of order or stability, an indication of something coherent or sort of grammatically "correct." This is a poem which means to disrupt stability, that means to be unstable. It means to mean, but it means to mean in ways that maybe want to disrupt time and logic and order--things that the period (.), for instance, provides us. In that way the poem's probably not "avoiding" punctuation-punctuation seems kind of useless in the world of this poem.
AMK: I'm also wondering how you determined to break your lines in "Nursery." I love that repetition of "this one" throughout the poem, but there doesn't seem to be any particular structure that dictates where the lines in which it rests are broken. Don't get me wrong, I love free verse, but there's a part of me that wonders why this isn't a prose poem or why you use such short lines when you could have used longer lines that encapsulate complete
(rather than line-broken) thoughts
this little one's snout
in the bones with its tongue
could be written as "this little one's snout in the bones with its tongue out," for example. Don't get me wrong; I love these line breaks. I'm just curious to know why/how it ended up in this form.
RG: Nice question again, and it's a similar answer to the punctuation one. This poem means to enact disruption or disturbance. The genre of the nursery rhyme is kind of sweet and clear (I think this poem is like the little pigs nursery rhyme, or kids rhyme, or whatever it is), which is probably end-stopped and properly punctuated. Because it's imagining a world in which things make sense. This poem is not that--this poem is enacting, I think, a world where things don't make sense--or maybe the sense it makes is not sense-making. So those weirdly enjambed lines are broken things, not coherent or sense-making things. So that the treatment of the line and line break is itself a kind of meaning, and the meaning, I think, is the brokenness. And there's more, you know--the irony of the kids rhyme or tale vs. the violence or chaos of these lines. (Mind you, the poem is entirely coherent to me, and I could and maybe will write truly chaotic poems--poems which do chaos and violence on the page.) You mention "structure" in your question--my main desire for structure, I think, is more bodily (in my body and yours) than it is formal or on the page. In other words, my structural concern in that poem, in addition to what I said about "meaning," is to trouble the structure of our own bodies by making it weird to breathe. I like to sing that poem--you should do it-and honor the line breaks. You'll see how much the structural question of those lines is about the body itself. About how the lines of a poem make our bodies breathe or not breathe. How they trouble or soothe our bodies. This poem ought not soothe our bodies.
AMK: Speaking of form: most of the poems in your latest collection Bringing the Shovel Down utilize short lines. What is it about the short line that you like so much?
RG: In different poems I like different lines. In the title poems from the book, I like a long line because those poems are so narrative to me, and narrative often asks of me to take time in the line, to not rush it or cut it off. The shorter lines are used for different reasons (tempo, music, etc) in different poems, so I can't say across the board. I can say, though, I'm writing new poems that are almost all very short lines and they feel like they push me down the page--these poems, too (some of them), are pretty enjmabed and teetering, and there's something going on with that.... I should say that I love Yusef Komunyakaa's poems, those short lines of his, which I'm sure I copy some. And Philip Levine's too.
AMK: "Glass" has the feel of a myth written to into free verse. There's the macabre death of the mother "gagged / ... with the steel bit / pride from the dead horse...," the murdered mother's "dreams of drought and plagues / of flies and wolves...," and the glass the children search for on the side of the road that they hold "to the sky / to be sure the glass [is] pure" and, later, feed to their father via a stew. It has the feel of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus or a Grimm fairy tale. Can you talk a little bit about where your poems come from. What about the genesis of this poem in particular? Is it entirely made up? Does it come from your own life? A newspaper clipping?
RG: Definitely not from my own life--we never fed my dear old pa anything, sorry to say (Actually, my mom did.). Mostly he was doing the cooking, and damn good cooking at that. Well, my ma did half too. Also--damn good. And no glass ever (as far as I can tell). It's actually a busted ballad, and if you go back into it you can see that it just yanks the quatrains into tercets and more or less keeps the rhyme scheme (it's loose, but it's there). And the meter is that ballad meter, pretty close. I actually heard a story about hunting, about a way of hunting where you bury the tip of a spear in the ice or snow, fleck it with blood, and a wolf will come, start licking, and because it loves blood so much, will bleed to death this way. I don't know if this is "true". I stole it from a hip hop record. It seemed like a useful metaphor for we who love violence and revenge, who love the taste of our own blood, who even when we murder the big oppressor by feeding him glass get to eat the glass that's stuck in little flicks in our fingers. So it comes from a glimmer of a story, I fiddled with it, and made it a very violent poem that I don't really like to read. Sometimes poems come like that. Sometimes they come in snatches of music, or a few phrases, or a the desire to write about the holy mulberry tree, and figuring out the most ridiculous way into a poem, the way that makes me travel the most, discover the most and smile all or some of the while.
AMK: I absolutely LOVE the structure of "Glass," how it opens with the father "slurp[ing] the stew / wide=eyed and wolf-mouthed / as was his way to do / at these meals they made / him since their ma was gone," then takes us on this wild ride of what's happened to these kids and their mother as this strange narrative of glass unfolds, and, finally, ends with the father eating (unbeknownst, of course, to him) the glass his vengeful children have been collecting to feed him. I'm curious to know how you came to this circular form.
RG: I'm glad you love it. I can't recall exactly how that came about though...I wish I could. I think in that book, especially with the handful of strongly narrative poems (the title poems, this one, a couple others), I was working with time in the telling, making the stories travel a bit. I kind of wonder, with that one, if a movie helped me out, because it has that movie thing going on--a shot of some dramatic action (the dad eating glass) and then the backstory of how it came to be.
AMK: You write a lot of poems in the third person (rather than in the first), at least in Bringing the Shovel Down. Are there more first person poems in your first collection, Against Which, or is first person something you avoid or are naturally not that interested in? Why/Why not?
RG: I'm very interested in first person, and those are almost the only poems I'm writing now. But for this book, for the big project of the book, I was mostly trying to consider things that were national, mythological, cultural, etc--in other words, that didn't have to do with "me" first. And the "I" in many of these poems (again, I'm thinking the title poems) are really a construction. They are myths as well.
AMK: In my reading I've now encountered a number of poems that utilize the repetition of a line that starts "Because..." as in "The Lion and the Gazelle." Daniel Khalastchi's "The Maturation of Man" was featured in August 2011 at http://www.poemoftheweek.org/id438.html and Jeffrey Shultz's "J. Finds in His Pocket Neither Change Nor Small Bills" can be found at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poem/238036.
What do you think it is about the refrain that seems to be popping up in quite a bit of Contemporary Poetry? Does it have something to do with our "obsession with causality, particularly when it comes to life and death? Does it have something to do with our desire for connection in a 21st Century that's, well, less and less connected the more time we spend on devices concocted, supposedly, to do the opposite?
RG: I think that's an interesting idea. I can't add to your speculation (or answer your question) at all, except to say I think it's a great question and one that might be fruitful to follow. I guess I would wonder what's unique about our obsession with causality, and how that would have changed in the recent past (is it something about technology, which is, I think re-building our brains in deep ways? Is it something about the planet itself, the heating up planet, is teaching us about causality? When all the science says it's just about over, I guess we might start writing poems that start "because."). Neat question.