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Against Which (New Voices) Paperback – October 31, 2006
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About the Author
ROSS GAY was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and grew up outside of Philadelphia. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and Atlanta Review, among other journals. Ross is a Cave Canem fellow and has been a Breadloaf Tuition Scholar. In addition to holding a Ph.D in American Literature from Temple University, he is a basketball coach, an occasional demolition man, a painter, and a faculty member at New England College’s Low-Residency MFA program.
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After Stern's foreword (in which he devotes space for a full transcription of two of Ross's poems) we get into the poetry. The first line that Gay presents, "maybe, since you're something like me", sets the tone for the rest of the book. I got the feel that he intends to treat me as a kindred spirit and so I buckled up and let him take me on this ride. The poetry shines particularly bright like diamonds (Gay seems to especially like diamonds, using the image in multiple poems) when it feels autobiographical. In one poem he addresses what it's like growing up as a half African American in the United States. We see Gay repressing his anger when he shares an experience of being jeered at for keeping the company of a white girl. After this he arrives home to his white mother who has made sloppy joes--as American as apple pie--from scratch for dinner. He walks home with fists balled in his pockets, but doesn't mention the incident to his mother.
The entire first segment explores ideas of unfairness and the anger and gratitude that the unfair can elicit. In "Hernia" he writes an ode to basketball, shamelessly telling the sport, "I love you". In this poem he explores the depth of love he feels once something he values is taken away (even if only for a month). He finds unfairness in a slew of examples and writes about it from different emotional angles, until he has covered as many as possible. He explores how the unfairness of tragedy can bring people together, how the unfairness of mental illness ("Alzheimer's") can shake the foundations of our faith, and how the unfairness of religion can alienate and make us feel less than human for inherently human qualities, such as sexuality. He explores mental illness again in "Broken Mania" where he highlights the way in which the pains of our loved ones become our own. I take from that poem that perhaps we are even less equipped to handle the problems of our loved ones second-hand than they are able to handle them first-hand.
There is room for humor in the unjust; one poem, "Poem beginning with a line overheard in the Gym", asks us if we can see the poetry and sadness in crass humor. In a different humorous poem we see an impoverished man working alongside a teenager at a fast food chain. The poor man is so destitute he can't afford to miss work and is forced to show up sick. The teenager sees something fall out of the poor man's nose and into a burger. What does the kid do? Can he, a kid with a future in good conscious rat out the poor man who has nothing? In the end the lesser of two evils is letting someone eat a snot-burger. It's funny, it's disgusting, it's heart wrenching, and it's most certainly unfair. And that's what Gay brings to the table in the first chapter: a multi-dimensional, sometimes complex, sometimes deceivingly simple view of fairness.
The second chapter of Against Which burns with the passion and rage of yearning to understand the horrific. Gay's poetry takes an introspective look at violence, but as is exemplified in the opening poem of the chapter, "The Voice" dedicated to Gerald Stern, poetry itself can be a form of violence. Gay again forces us to re-examine a seemingly straight forward concept and see it through many different lenses. In "The Voice" he describes the ferocity one must approach thought with in order to strangle a new idea out, "each day you crack open a hard rock cataract, you see, for once, one new goddamned thing, you see, you fill your lungs, and you scream, and you scream, and you scream".
In the second chapter Gay deals with issues like the sudden violence of an aneurysm, the ongoing and unforgettable violence of war and cancer, the human sadism responsible for murder, animal cruelty, child abuse, and lynching, as well as the horrors of the emergency room, where we often go to "cure" the results of violence. The second chapter is an onslaught of brutality and empathy. Gay asks us to smell a bar-b-q of human flesh, he asks us to imagine frogs being flung through air, and all of their biology splattering as they reconnect with earth. He tells us gophers are ugly and then begs us to feel sympathy for the ugly creatures at men dismember them. What is beautiful about this chapter is Gay's ability to contrast the plight of the gopher with the horror of war and elicit an equal emotional response. In "Cousin Drowses on the Flight to Kuwait" his writing is at its most lyrical and surreal. The poem itself is a fever dream of opposing ideas colliding together, from dreams of lover's breathe to sprays of shrapnel.
Unfairness and violence are inextricably linked, as so much of the violence Gay presents appears to be arbitrary and also innate to human nature. It seemed to me that after the first two segments were complete an idea of life as chaos began to emerge, without the poet ever overtly making these claims. The thematic progression of the book led me to the conclusion that life is at times chaotic and horrific, but that beauty can still be mined in the ghastly frenzy of existence, just as much as it can be seen in serenity or love.
Another thematic shift occurs in the third sections of Gay's book; the focus now becomes death. Interestingly enough the tone never devolves into the macabre, but fluctuates between the hopeful and the heartbreaking. The opening poem presents a fresh and unexpected take on death, title "First Breath" it refers not to a newborn's first breathe of air, but a soon to be dead man's hopeful anticipation for his first breath of soil. At this point I'm hardly surprised by Gay's fresh perspective. He continually rewraps common concepts in new flesh. As I read through the end of his book I almost came to expect him to expand notions on ideas I didn't even realize needed expanding. The next poem is, "How to Fall in Love With Your Father", which emerged as a favorite of mine upon finishing the book and appears to be one of the most personal autobiographical poems in the book (but that's only an assumption). Gay blends his abstract and concrete language and ideas here perhaps better than anywhere else in the book, with lines about wheeling his father into surgery followed by language like, "the anxious calligraphy of touch". The end of the poem is where he really brings it home. I felt like I was entranced by the language which is so striking in the middle parts of the poem that I forgot what this was really about, which is "the task at hand...lifting his father to his feet".
The final chapter of the book finds Gay writing with just as much urgency and energy, but the rage has subsided and we find him, in exploring death, to feel more at peace, which ties the earlier two sections up into a hopeful message. Life is chaotic, unfair, and violent, but we choose to take what we will from it and we all come to the same end. Again we are reminded that there is nothing to be afraid of, no matter how ghastly or horrid, we are immersed in beauty if we properly examine the reality against which we are pit.
Reading Ross Gay's Against Which was the first time that I ever sat down to read a book of poetry from cover to cover and I couldn't have asked for a better introduction. There was hardly a poem I wouldn't visit again and again in the future, I have a feeling this will rest safely by my night stand for some time before making its way to the bookshelf. Some poems I was compelled to read multiple times just going through the book the first time, like "How To Fall in Love With Your Father", "Broken Mania", and "First Breath". Some poems, like "Cousin Drowsing on the Flight to Kuwait" beg to be read aloud and it couldn't be more fun to do so.
The experience as a whole was a journey, reading the first poem was like starting the ignition of the car before a long road trip and putting the book down gave a feeling of transcendence. This is normally how I feel when reading a good novel, but I didn't expect a similar experience from a book of poetry that does not have the same narrative structure as a novel. I was mistaken, the narrative is in the thematic quality of the poetry, the message that the poems willed me as a reader to find as I read them consecutively. The narrative is in the word choice, the way that Gay uses certain words repeatedly, but in different ways from poem to poem, so every time I encountered a familiar and often used word I brought the experience of the previous poems into the one at hand and expanded on its definition. That is growth, and growth constitutes a journey. The subtextual narrative did not require finding, it slowly seeped into my mind as a reader. It was there the whole time, blossoming with each turned page, until when the last page fell, I had formed an identity for the story that is entirely my own.
In terms of Ross Gay's Against Which, how should I incorporate what I take to be poems from an imagined speaker, or poems of an exaggerated truth, when it feels that one of the book's central events is Gay's father's death? The effect is not to cause a dissonance as fact runs against fiction. Instead, what I find is a book whose overwhelming argument is life. And the humanity that roots that life to us will use whatever means necessary to testify to its existence. Violence. Ego. Racism. Adoration. All sentiments, every sentiment is at play here. And so that each registers, Against Which openly straddles the line between autobiography and fictionalized speaker. Who are all these speakers? Can all of them be Ross Gay? Is he the one who would have killed the Drunk Man in a 7-11 parking lot? Is he the 14-year-old who had to train a 38-year-old new hire at Burger King? Remarkably, when I read these poems I believe they might be Gay. But correlation is unnecessary. All that matter is the deeper sense of all that life embodies. If that, at times, need be addressed by a dramatic speaker, then that dramatic situation functions as complement to the book's overall theme.
"What is the florid burden of living?" Gay asks. Gerald Stern, in his introduction to the book would approximate Gay's answer as rage and tenderness. I would agree. Against Which is a farewell embrace, with all that life of these speakers struggling to let death be death. My first introduction to Gay's work came a few years after Against Which was published. His poem in Ploughshares, "The Lion and the Gazelle," describes a child who has to witness his dog being shot in the head. The description, whether Gay has ever witnessed something like this, felt factual. And the feeling that lasted with me involved the child, and the reality death became for him. To me, a similar sentiment underlies Against Which, at least in its capacity to describe that life which survives the death of a loved one. Between tenderness and rage, it survives.