Ross Gay's Gratitude as Social Commentary

Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of blog posts solicited from former Lit Fest interns discussing their experiences at Lit Fest or reading Lit Fest visiting authors.

After months of social distancing, “purpose” seems like a scarce resource. The effects of several stay-at-home orders have limited our ability to fully engage with work, family, and other communities. In the literary world, we’ve had to find new ways to share creativity, from Zoom readings to community boards. And despite the resilience… it’s not the same. I find myself scavenging for purpose. That has meant revisiting some favorite books and poems, so that I may center myself in writing between the lagging virtual conferences.

As one might expect, I started to find some purpose in Ross Gay. His Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude engages with his notion of gratitude through nature, action, and personal experience. Within these overarching elements, Gay also employs a common strain of the quotidian as an expression of gratitude. However, equally present within Gay’s motifs is social commentary, from sexuality to gender to race. Considering the quotidian and the social commentary as constituting gratitude portends that there is an element of futurity to gratitude, for the conflation of daily activities with social issues implies that there are actions or objects being continuously reproduced in relation to systemic forms of thought or oppression. I call this aspect in Gay’s work a quotidian schema of social commentary. I found myself wondering: how might this schema, between Gay’s poems, evince an understanding of gratitude that places futurity at its helm, through the quotidian and the social? Here, I look at “to the fig tree on 9th and christian” and “ode to buttoning and unbuttoning my shirt” as examples of this quotidian schema of social commentary.

In “to the fig tree on 9th and christian,” Gay’s quotidian aspect is the visitation of the fig tree as the poet travels “through the/ city in my/ mind without once/ looking up.” A marker of quotidian acts is mundanity—by stating that he is not looking up, his travel through the city becomes a quotidian act. Fruther, Gay’s description of the identities of the tree’s visitors and past connect the quotidian to his social commentary on immigration. The stranger who gave the poet his first fig is the man “using words which/ I couldn’t understand," the “man who escaped his country/ by swimming through the night." The aspect of futurity in the poem is seen both in the present tense of the poem and at its end. Gay says “we are feeding each other… strangers maybe/ never again.” The community is collaborating in its efforts of consumption, and although Gay may not have known these individuals before the interactions at the fig tree, he states that they will “never again” be strangers. Thus, the quotidian act of visiting a community tree not only gives visibility to identity/social issues through these individuals, but also suggests that these interactions will continue; this gratitude contains a futurity.

The quotidian schema of social commentary is also seen in “ode to buttoning and unbuttoning my shirt.” Here, Gay engages with the clearly quotidian action stated in the title, and uses it to explore how the act itself (and variations of the act) are different deployments of identity. This is most evident when he says “sometimes/ the buttons/ will be on the other/ side and/ I am a woman/ that morning.” Here, he tells us not that he feels that he is a woman, but that he is one. This more direct metaphor suggests that the act itself allows him to not only embody another identity, but to embody an identity that is societally reinforced by the structural gender binary. This also functions as a reference to the fashion industry feeding into the binary as it produces articles of clothing with buttons on one side for men, and the other for women. As Gay mentions that his actions make him “tread/ differently that day,” we see how the actions are sustained in a potential day, suggesting a futurity. Futurity as also suggested in  “days/ which too have/ been drizzled in this/ simplest of joys” as the quotidian act occurs not only on different days, but also repeatedly within days themselves. Repetition of “practice” with the spider, raft, and bones in the last sixth of the poem too suggests futurity, since practicing is a repeated action. Gay’s quotidian act of buttoning is one that might allow him to embody particular aspects of his identities that could be socially contested—such as gender—and its inherent repetition gives understanding to its replication in future acts. This schema is grounded in gratitude as Gay believes that the act gives him a “delicacy for I must only use the tips of my fingers,” which he states he will use to “one day close [his] mother’s eyes.” Here, he says he is grateful for the quotidian act as it will serve him, in futurity, for the deeply personal confrontation of a loved one’s death.

These poems, in demonstrating a quotidian schema of social commentary, might allow us to observe Gay’s gratitude as one that is constantly in actualization, one that may manifest during any daily act, and one that is bound within the social framework in which we act. This approach to gratitude is seemingly pervasive in Gay’s work and one I would suggest is a schema throughout the entirety of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.

I find this reading of Gay’s to be helpful in finding purpose during social isolation. It seems like every act has become quotidian—I’ve fallen into a cycle, like so many others, of rising to walk the dog, boot up my laptop for the day’s work, and intermittently clean the house and check the news for the latest updates. We can take the quotidian acts of self-quarantine to implicate futurity. In advocating for a grateful experience of the objects we interact with or actions we take, we can reframe the at-home experience. If we take Gay’s work to implicate social issues, as I do here, we also have a way to reflect our quotidian acts to a worldly context. How might we enact this same schema in the social distancing we have left? And how might we learn to enact this gratitude when we start to collectively recover from this global event?

I believe Gay would tell us that purpose is to be found every day and everywhere.

Herman Chavez is a Junior at Colorado State University studying Interdisciplinary Liberal Arts, Cello Performance-Pedagogy, and English. He is interested in exploring creative expression and social change through language, music, education, and interdisciplinary art forms. Chavez comes to Lighthouse from the Diversity in the Arts program as a part of its inaugural cohort, and Lit Fest 2019 was his first taste of what Lighthouse has to offer the Denver creative community. He is currently a founding editor of Cicada Creative Magazine and the co-managing editor of Spiritus Mundi: A Collective Memory.

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