Ross Gay | A Book of Flowers || Radcliffe Institute

-It’s good to be here. Thanks for coming. And I’m going to talk
about, I think, six things. First of all, I want to say
thank you to the institute. It is an amazing opportunity. And I made some really great
friends and thought things and heard things I never
would’ve thought or heard before. So it feels very lucky
to be here, very lucky. I kept wanting to make a
joke about– something like, and I’m so glad now it’s
a three year fellowship. And the second thing
I want to say– We were listening to “Gratitude,”
Earth, Wind, & Fire. Do you all know
Earth, Wind, & Fire? And you probably know Maurice
White died two weeks ago or something. Maybe. Maybe you didn’t. But I’ve been thinking
about Maurice White. I was watching some
of Earth, Wind, & Fire’s videos this morning. So one of the things
that I love– I mean, that was like one of the
groups that I grew up on. So you know, the music
that I grew up with and that my– I kind of
grew up with my father. It was Earth, Wind, & Fire. So I grew up actually right
outside of Philadelphia. And like, the other
little White kids were writing AC/DC and Def
Leppard on their books. And I was writing
Earth, Wind, & Fire and the Commodores on my books. I mean, if that song’s called
gratitude– My book’s called Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. It just occurred
to me how formative that that was and how beautiful
they were on stage– I mean, the music is incredible–
but how beautiful they were. I was looking at them,
and Phillip Bailey, he looks like he’s the young guy
with the beautiful falsetto voice. And I remember– They got
a song called “Reasons.” And it’s like an adult,
grownup, sexy song. And I remember being
seven or eight years old singing the reasons
that we’re here. [SINGING] In the morning,
when I rise, no longer feeling hypnotized. I was seven! And then, another
thing I thought about is that when I
was a kid, I would listen to the music
with the headphones on. And I heard my dad one
time, who was a huge reader, and I just wasn’t
into books as you. -Heard -Presently. Heard from my mother. And I overheard my dad say, hey,
lea– Cause I was sitting there reading the lyrics, because
I would get all records off the Columbia Record Club. And I overheard my dad say
to my mom, well, at least he’s reading something! So Maurice White and my big
brother taught me how to read. The second thing I wanted to
say– So, he’s in the room. I have a teacher named
Lucille Bertuccio who is– she might still be
alive, but she’s on her way– but she’s a gardening
teacher in Bloomington. And you know, she’s one of
our elders in Bloomington who has given so much
of her life to us. I first met her because
I was at like an urban– like a foraging class, edible
weeds and stuff like that. So you know, we’d be
eating like violets off the ground or
dandelions, which I love, and all kinds
of stuff like that. I took other classes
with her as well, as she was an incredible
model of some generosity and kindness. She’s so beautiful. I can remember her
walking down the street– because you didn’t have
a car, so she’d always be walking with her cart when
she’s going to the market or whatever– her laugh, her
incredible wisdom, her joy, her sort of rage–
you know, her sort of beautiful, critical
rage at the ways that the planet’s
getting fucked up. So anyway, I don’t know if
she’s still here on this planet, but I want to bring
her in the room too. And I’m going to
read a poem first, an elegy called “Burial.” So I ask this question
whenever I read this poem. Has anyone done anything
with their placenta? What? You. What did you do? -I ask people the same question. -Oh, you do? How come? -Because it’s part
of the work I do. -OK. It’s part of the work I do too. Did anyone do anything
neat with their placenta? Besides just– I
don’t know what you’d do with it if you don’t
do something neat with it. Did anyone plant a tree with it? Thank you. It’s called “Burial.” “You’re right, you’re
right, the fertilizer’s good– It wasn’t a gang
the dullards came up with chucking a fish
in the planting hole or some midwife got
lucky with the placenta– oh, I’ll plant a tree here. And a sudden flush of quince
and jam enough for months. Yes, the magic dust
our bodies become casts spells on the roots about
which someone else could tell you the chemical processes.” Probably someone in this room. “But it’s just
magic to me, which is why a couple springs ago
when first putting in my two bare root plum trees out back,
I took the jar which has become my father’s home,
and lonely for him and hoping to coax him back
for my mother as much as me, poured some of them
in the planting holes. And he dove in glad
for the robust air, saddling a slight gust
into to my nose and mouth, chucking as I coughed,
but mostly he disappeared into the minor yawns in the
earth into which I placed the trees, splaying
wide their roots, casting the grey dust of my old
man evenly throughout the hole, replacing then the clods
of dense Indiana soil until the roots and my
father were buried, watering it all in with one
hand while holding the tree with the other straight as a flag
to the nation of simple joy of which my father is now
a naturalized citizen, waving the flag from
his subterranean layer, the roots curled around him
like shawls or jungle gyms, like hookahs or the
arms of ancestors, before breast-stroking
into the xylem–” Lucille taught me that word– “Riding the elevator
up through the cambium and into the leaves where, when
you put your ear close enough, you can hear him whisper
good morning, where, if you close your eyes
and push your face you can feel his
stubbly jowls and good lord this year he would giddy
at the first real fruit set and nestled into the 30 or
40 plums in the two trees, peering out from the sweet
meat with his hands pressed against the purple skin
like cathedral glass, and imagine his joy
as the sun wizarded forth those abundant sugars. And I plodded barefoot and
prayerful at the first right plum’s swell and blush,
almost weepy conjuring some surely ponderous averse to
convey this bottomless grace– you know, oh father oh
father kind of stuff– hundreds of hot air balloons
filling the sky in my chest, replacing his intubated body
listing like a boat keel side up, replacing the
steady stream of water from the one eye which his
brother wiped before removing the tube, keeping his
hand on the forehead until the last wind in
his body wandered off, while my brother
wailed like an animal. And my mother said,
weeping, it’s OK. It’s OK, you can go, at all
of which my father guffawed by kicking from the first bite
buckets of juice down my chin, staining one of my two
button-down shirts, the salmon colored silk one,
hollering there’s more of that! almost dancing in the
plum, in the tree, the way he did as a person,
bent over and biting his lip and chucking the one hip out
then the other with his elbows cocked and fists loosely made
and eyes closed and mouth made trumpet when
he knew he could make you happy just by being
a little silly and sweet.” [APPLAUSE] Thank you. This is my talk. I wrote it this weekend. And I thought I was going
to write a little thing and then do some other thing. But then this thing
just keeps on coming. I think it’s called
“A Book of Flowers.” And I don’t know if I will
call it “A Book of Flowers” before the part that I’m going
to read to you or after that. But I just called it “A
Book of Flowers” before it, so we have to go from there. “A Book of Flowers.” I’ll say it again, I don’t care! So the deal was– This is from
an interview between my friend Kyla who– for the
record, I don’t know I got this right
yet– She’s also part of this African American
poetry community, Cave Canem, that I belong to. She is coaxing this out of me. She’s like my teacher
in this, in a way. She asks me in the
interview, “There’s a lot of grief in
catalog, but there’s also a tremendous amount of joy. By the time I got
to the poem weeping and about the niece who’s made
a friend in this butterfly–” I had this poem about my
niece and she becomes friends with a butterfly–
“I was thinking, I’m reading a book of poems
about flowers by a black man. Even though you do talk
about things related to race, I wondered if you were
resisting all the things you could’ve been talking about. Was any of that conscious? Or you just minding
your business talking about your regular life?” Here’s my answer. “If there was any kind of overt
action the book is taking– and I don’t want it to be
a book against anything– it’s a book imagining or
advocating for something. It’s really– like
the title says– It’s advocating for
something unabashed, something vulnerable,
and you know, full-on. If it’s conscious of
any sort of confinement, it’s a confinement
that I often feel when I want to express
a sort of wild love, when I want to be full-on
about what I adore. And that’s maybe what
the book is most. It has that kind of heart in it. It wants to be nuts
in love with shit, which includes
being heartbroken, all torn up about
stuff, and open. And that can feel
really terrifying, that kind of openness
or attempt at openness. I’ll speak for myself. That feels scary. When you’re like,
oh I love this! Because then if someone’s
like, fuck your little thing, that sucks. That hurts. The posture of irony is
emotionally easy to take. It’s very much a way of
not being vulnerable, not being addressed.” “A Book of Flowers. One. Kyla, you and I both know
this is a bullshit answer. You gently said as much to me
when we ran into each other a few weeks after we did the
interview over the phone. I said, hey, I’m going to try
to write another essay to more properly answer your question. There’s more to say. To which you said,
yeah, I kind of figured. When we talked on the phone,
I was wandering around Oakland after a long day at the Black
Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference, a little bit
lost and a lot hungry, looking for a place to eat
that might have something substantial and vegan both. Not always easy to come by. When I did finally
find a place, it was not both, for the record. And when you asked
me the question, I couldn’t quite formulate
what it is I wanted to say. That’s because I didn’t
quite know what I thought. Or maybe more
accurately, I didn’t know I knew what I thought. Though I did, of
course, I did, know what it means to be black
man writing a book of poems about flowers, as you say. Though, Kyla, there are many
other things in my book, thank you very much. I do want to say and re-say to
anyone who will listen to me– thank you for asking,
Kyla– that I believe in gratitude, ‘flowers.” There’s a kind of discipline,
an energizing and catalyzing and potentially
collectivizing discipline. What I mean is that, when
I’m thinking of gratitude or the gratitude I’m thinking
of is largely about the ways we make each other possible. And gratitude makes
me more interested in making people
possible, myself included. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote
a pretty compelling I’m-sick-of-all-this-gratitude
piece in the New York Times. It kind of flayed the ‘I’m
so grateful for my Lexus SUV’ stuff floating around
that I associate with Palm Springs or something,
even though I don’t actually know where that is. I’m so grateful for my
beautifully manicured garden, et cetera. And that’s very far from what
I’m talking about, as you know. I mean, how lucky it is to have
one of those Valentine’s Day cards that plays a
recording and a song, this one belting
out the Supremes, ‘I Hear a Symphony,’ and your
murdered pal’s voice telling you, Ross, I love you
like an old Motown record. How lucky to have been
alive to care for your dying father after years
of hardly been able to talk to each other,
to open his water bottles when he couldn’t open
them for himself, to scramble him a couple eggs
and convince them to eat it. How lucky to take a phone call
during your graduate workshop from an unfamiliar
number, which was your pal calling from
the psych ward the day after his suicide attempt. How lucky to have done a
beautiful thing in your life, to have loved something,
to have touched with your hands this
earth, to have been loved, to have escaped, none
of which– and Lord, I hope it’s in the
poems– implies evasion of sorrow or pain,
none of which, lord knows, implies not looking
back, not reaching back. No, I mean across,
not reaching across. If there’s anything interesting
to me about the palms, it’s that they are motivated
by precisely the desire to reach across, which is
exactly what metaphor means, after all. Have you seen the moving
trucks in Greece emblazoned with the word metaphores. My palms would be stupid
little things to me, if they didn’t reach your way. Who has the time? But you said flowers,
so let’s talk flowers. For instance, the mighty
dandelion, which in my garden is common enough for my
buddy to have actually said, whoa man, I’ve never seen so
many dandelions in my life, and which is edible
top-to-bottom and paints the asses of honeybees
gold, to boot. Who thinks of the
arugula blossom, papery, peppery, with somehow
a kiss as sweet at the end? And two, the false
indigo blooms? Who knows the false indigo? -Uh, yeah. -Well, you’ll
understand me then. And two, the false
indigo blooms. I’m not kidding. It’s uncouth to say so, but
I feel sometimes somehow the need to repeat
myself on this one. It makes the rivers
in my body fill up– which yes, is a not-great
metaphor for a sexy feeling– while watching the bumblebees
lumber up to them, nuzzling the blue petals until they
part and then some growling and quaking, before
the bumblebee crawls from the cave, all
drowsy and pollen-lit, and does it again and again. Can you believe it? How lucky for the precise
folk of the pear tree blooms from beneath
the bloomers of which tumbles an animal
scooting in currents through the late spring air. You should by now have
wrinkled your nose and thought poorly of me
and waved your dusty copy of Sir Benedict Cumberbatch’s
Craft of Good Writing, First Edition in my direction at
how mixed my metaphors have become in this place.” It’s true, that’s
not a real book. But man, that made me laugh
when I wrote First Edition. I thought, that’s a good touch! “I’m guessing if you came
to my garden with me, it might happen to you. And what about the chokeberry? Not the same or as good as, but
kind of like the chokecherry– bitter, makes your
tongue sticky– which I used to pick from the
back of my grandpa’s pickup truck in Verndale, Minnesota. And serviceberry, AKA
juneberry, AKA saskatoon berry, whose many aliases
pale in comparison to the many registers of
deliciousness and health benefits of the simple berry. And two, how lucky
for the goumi–” Does anyone know
what a goumi is? Aw. Come to my garden. “In fact, yes, let
me take this moment to say no small praise upon
the goumi bushes in my garden. Let us first attend to the word
in the mouth, which is itself a kind of miracle, forcing
you to become a baby again, glottal and cute–
guh; before coaxing you to say ooh, you crooner,
you; and then to say mm; which you know, is the
sound of the things; and closing out with the ee. That’s a happy sound. And then let us acknowledge
too the no fewer than 8 trillion glassy
freckles shimmering the goumi’s red surface,
which when you account for the 8 trillion
goumi on this one bush, makes a galaxy of
glassy freckles.” I was imagining the
mathematicians, like, walking out. You don’t know
what a trillion is. Not to mention that
the goumi makes its own nitrogen, its own food,
and who does that these days? Not to mention, the
silvery leaves also speckled, flecked
to mirror the berry, or the flower
preceding the berry, which is not quite like
the bell of a trombone, but I will say like the bell
of a trombone today, because it is one of the many
things in my garden turns my body into a horn,
pulling me into the orchestra. And from that not quite
trombone or the trillions of them shivering on
the bush is belted a smell both sweet and
creamy that drops me some days to my very knees. And I haven’t mentioned
yet the way they taste, the way they hang on the
bush, slowly wisening into an unspeakable
sweetness which will every day from
late June to mid-July make you forget whatever
the hell it is you came out here to do, unless
you came out here to eat goumi. Or this– I have a
good friend named Ginger, a neighbor’s
tortoiseshell cat, and she drops by daily. And she likes to hop
onto my shoulders when I’m bent over
in the garden, so as to differently
see her world. Usually she gets
up there and she likes to mosey out onto the
gangplank plank of my arms, wrapping her front
legs around it, smooshing her face
into my bicep, and hurting me a little
bit with her claws. Gingie has a weird
and imposing swagger, a slight leftward
cast to her trot, maybe because of
all the time she spends huffing in the
catmint in my garden, her little white
ponch swaying beneath. And when she turns the corner
to my alley come April or May, which in southern Indiana is the
season of fledglings and baby bunnies and such, her
parents will set off a cacophony of
chirps and whistles and screams, like something
out of a Western or something. I’m thinking now
of an Eddie Murphy skit in which his mother becomes
with her slipper like Clint Eastwood. One of these days, I saw
through the front window Ginger come trotting toward my
house across the street with a murderous
look at her eye. And I thought, uh oh. And when she got
close, I saw she had in her mouth, a
baby bunny kicking its cute, little, cute,
long, cute bunny feet. I was mostly naked and barefoot
when I ran outside and startled Ginger just by slamming open
the screen door yelling, let the bunny go! Ginger dropped the
cute little guy, and it scampered off a few feet
before being recovered again. Now I throw a rubber clog that
was laying in the bee balm and sage at Ginger, a
more aggressive version of distraction, just
clipping her ear. And the bunny this time
made a good getaway, maybe had a full second or two,
while Ginger looked first at the clog and
then at me, really? Did you really just throw
your size 14 Croc at me? Then she added, looking
back over her shoulder as she began her
pursuit, don’t you know how stupid you
look in those things? The bunny bolted down the
hill in front of my house, and Ginger bolted
after it, and I bolted after them both,
barefoot and in my underwear. The bunny made a hard right
and boogied up the sidewalk. And though the
bunny was quick, it was not Ginger, who closed on
it almost immediately until, I kid you not, not one
but two blue jays dive-bombed her, screaming
the whole way down, which did in fact
distract Ginger enough that the
bunny scooted away, crossing the street in the
fastest hops of her new life before getting into a thicket. Gingie looked up into the sky
with her paw over her face– the jays were convincing,
very nasty, if pretty little fuckers– defending herself
against another attack. And after Gingie saw
the jays perched back up in the crabapple tree,
their chests flared up and their wings reshuffling
like switchblades clicking shut and sliding back
into pockets, she looked around for
the bunny, which was by now in the next county. Then Gingie, after sniffing and
then licking first one paw then the other, the way
sometimes basketball players will look at their
hands when they’ve missed a couple easy
shots in a row–” I like that metaphor a lot. [LAUGHTER] “turned around and me and
shrugged as if to say, did that really just happen? It did. I saw with my own
eyes in my own garden which I feel so compelled
to write, to spend time in, and to shout about its beauty,
its wonder, its care to anyone who will listen. Or this, what the parsley
looks like and flower in its second year,
its weird stock shot up nearly my
height and the blooms like doilies peppered
with luminous wasps. Or the drift of mountain
mint, its plumes poking from the dusty leaves
on stocks about me-high, so thick with thirsty bugs,
an orgy of bees and wasps and flitterers innumerable,
that when you part them with your hands, pardon me,
you might say, coming through, you might say, and then
lower your face to smell medicinal floral sharp– The
humming there of the bees you have become is probably
not unlike the sound of blood moving through your body. Or the last dance of the peach
bloom, that wispy outfit it shimmies out of before
swelling into fruit. Kyla, do you know that ants help
the peony bud unwrap by licking from the sticky bulb the
sweet nectar you can see dotted in the flowers’ surface
in little luminous gems? Ever find a big
burly mustard plant that had volunteered
itself in the pine bark murch of the foot
of a blueberry bush? Ever cut down what you
thought the mulberry tree that planted itself in
the wrong place, only to realize when it
wouldn’t die that it was a peach tree these days grown
to 18 feet tall and heavy with a good yellow clingstone
more immune to the rock than all the others? Ever seen the blueberry flowers,
like the teeniest white gowns after a rain, the
bead of water topped in the flowers’ tiny eye, your
reflection quaking in there, more like you than any
image of you ever seen? Every slid 20 sweet potato
slips into a patch of yard without even turning
the soil, without even shearing the grass, and
watch those slips slither into a carpet of
heart-shaped greens, and after the first
frost and loosening the soil with your pitchfork,
slid your hands into the ground to yank out the clusters
of sweet brown bodies, soil-covered and true? Look at me going
on like this, Kyla. I’m resisting your question
about resistance, looks like. But I’m not really resisting. Truth is, I’m
making an argument. I’m making an
argument with my body and the ground about our
bodies and the ground. Two. When I told my buddy–
Let’s start again. When I told my buddy
the poet and essayist, and beatmaker and
dancer Patrick Rosal that I was trying to answer your
question in a less bullshit way and I thought there
might be a way to do it through the
garden, through the ground, he sent along a little entry
in an essay he’s writing. His piece, a seedling still–” It’s a pun. “–is ostensibly about being
mistaken for the waitstaff, despite being dressed
nothing like the waitstaff, by white lady at table 24 at the
National Book Award Ceremony, which is held at a place called
Cipriani’s, where that night they served beef cheeks. Pat was there that
night to celebrate a few of his friends, who
also happen not to be white, being nominees or
judges, you know, to celebrate how far we’ve come. I think she asked him to refill
her wine glass or something. He paid about $250
for the pleasure. This is what he sent along.” So maybe you’ll get this, but
he had a really nice suit, but it was really
cheap– inexpensive. “‘This two piece fits
me nice and slim, tapered along the sides, the
sleeves long enough for me to flash a bit of French cuff,
just snug in the shoulder for the lapels’ gentle slope
to the simple double button– black, classy, and polyester. The suit is $90. OK, 105 with the in-seam hem. That’s one decent night
of drinks in Manhattan. It’s an expensive bottle
of wine or a used TV. It’s an Amtrak
ticket, round-trip from Philly to New York Penn. It’s a used parlor guitar
with a cracked tuning peg. It could buy me enough
kush to get me lifted twice a week for three months. But I’m buying this
suit right here to go to cheer hard for friends
who were being celebrated at the National Book Awards. Black tie, the invite says. My seat at the table
cost me almost 2 and 1/2 times the price of my suit. I pay up, because I
want to be in the room to dap my brothers and sisters. Get it? The word “style” is
cousin to “stylus,” to etch, or to engrave. And so it is a way to inscribe
oneself upon the world, but also a way to dig, to
delve into, to investigate. Style is then an
inquiry to engrave. Style furthermore is a way
to carve a place, a hole into some landscape. It is a way to prepare
the earth for the body.'” That’s Pat’s part. “And I might take this lyric
etymology one step further or build a little
addition onto it, with your and Pat’s permission,
because style is also a way of looking. Both Pat’s looking good in
his off-the-rack– I saw him and the way he looked was
real clean, sharp enough to catch you; in fact, he killed
me and my corny-ass text– and a particular way
of looking, of seeing, which a book about
flowers might be. How you look and how you look. How you look and how you look. So the words ‘look’–
or another hop here, ‘see’– might also be a mode
of inscribing oneself upon the world or out of it. It might be also a kind of
engraving or digging, which might also be a
kind of shoveling. And you know where
this is going. How you see or what you
see depends on the ground. You cannot engrave, in
other words, you cannot dig, in other words, you cannot
prepare the earth for your body without the proper
and true ground. Maybe this book of
flowers is a preparation for the ground I wish to enter. Three. Preparing the ground
for our bodies. Yes, of course, I mean the land. But I’m really talking about
the ground, what holds us, what we walk on,
what we fall onto, what we leap from, what
holds us, the ground. Or in a painting, that
against which the marks are made in a Franz Kline painting,
the big industrial swipes of black arguing with or
emerging from or even resisting the creamy surfaces, gestures
legible because of the ground, dependent upon the ground. Or better yet a
Glen Ligon painting, the Zora Neale Hurston quote and
black text on a white surface, ‘I feel most colored when I’m
thrown against a sharp white background.’ And if there are these physical
or visual grounds, the grounds of an image, I’m really
curious about the grounds of our imaginations and the
ground it is implied or assumed by the word resistance in
the context of your question and some other similar questions
I’ve got about this book. What are you resisting in your
book of flowers, Black man? Turns out, I might be kind
of resistant to the word resistance. I’m resistant to
the word resistance because what I hope
I’m doing actually is imagining a ground
different than the one the question presumes. Because the ground that
question presumes is something I refuse to abide. On that ground, which is
perhaps a simply descriptive of an America, which
is for the record, like everything fleeting. Let’s call it an American
ground, in which, for which, upon which black people
are not actually people. And sometimes it
feels that if America grants that if we are
people, that it also imagines that our natural condition is
pain, is suffering, is turmoil, is indignity, is death. It’s big business, our
suffering, our death. All kinds of people dance to it. All kinds of people fuck to
it and fall in love to it. People hold hands
in darkened theaters to it, weeping and
entering a ground. People grow up to it, will
feel nostalgic for it, for our death. It’s the best TV
series of all time. It’s got the best beat. Sometimes seems to me
that a black person becomes more legible in this
particular American ground the closer they
are to being dead. Wait, wait, I have to watch
this murder one more time. And whoa, there goes another. That is the ground. I hear myself say
it among friends, so I’ll say to you
right now that they would like us to believe it. They would like us to
believe– I sometimes believe, watching Walter
Scott been shot again and again on the news when any
child could see, watching Tamir Rice be murdered again and
again– that our natural state, our natural condition, our
ground is pain, if not death. There’s a child, I think
he’s eight years old– you know this, don’t you?–
who was inventing a rocket pack to escape the
bullets fired at him, by– he doesn’t know this
yet– this American imaginative ground, a rocket pack that will
propel him far above and beyond the reach of that ground. Let’s call that, yes, an
American imaginative ground. Let’s call it something
like a foundational American imaginative ground. And let me say, I don’t
believe in it as a ground. And consequently, I don’t
believe in it as something to be resisted. I just believe it’s a persistent
and abhorrent disruption to the actual ground, the
actual ground being what I hope my book, a black man’s
book of flowers might look at. Or since Cornelius Eady
says it better in his poem, “Gratitude”– yes,
I am a copycat– then I could ever
hope to, quote, “I’m a brick and house that is
being built around your house.” Or to stay kind of on topic,
I’m a flower in a garden, being planted around your
garden, a fervent and raucous mint. So what’s the ground? Our necessary lives or
our lives necessary. And in our lives are many
things– loss, sorrow, violence, pain, yes, but
also delight, silliness, raucous laughter, care–
care as I see it, above all. Love, as I see it, above all. A thousand, thousand
undocumented instances in my life alone of how I’ve
been loved and cared for, lives that have seen my life
and thereby made it possible. Lives, life, which has
made our lives possible. It’s a poem. It’s called ‘A
Small Needful Fact.’ Is that Eric Garner
worked for some time for the Parks and Rec. Horticultural Department,
which means, perhaps, that with his very large hand,
perhaps, in all likelihood, he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely, some of them, in all
likelihood, continue to grow, continue to do what
such plants do, like house and feed small
and necessary creatures, like being pleasant
to touch and smell, by converting
sunlight into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe. Four. Celebration, exultation,
praise, and gratitude, and the rigorous practice,
the rigorous public practice of those things is one of
the ways we remind ourselves that our lives are the ground,
that living is the ground. Those things remind
us that being murdered and fucked over and
terrorized is aberration and to announce to
the state or a shared consciousness or a broken
American imagination by hollering with the light at
our utterly necessary lives, our beautiful, beautiful
necessary lives, that we are in
fact meant to live. And so Kyla, this
book about flowers by a black man– you knew
all along, I suspect, sorry I can be long winded sometimes–
was both utterly conscious– I knew what I was
and wasn’t saying and what perhaps I’m
expected to be saying– and it was just me
minding my business, talking about my life, my life.” How much time do I have? We started, what,
like ten minutes late? Five? 13 minutes late? -Why, what do you want to do? -I want to read a poem. -Sure! -OK, OK. It’s called “Catalog of
Unabashed Gratitude.” The orchard that you
talked about is in there, and also there’s this child
named Aralee, who in the poem is an idea, and now
that’s a person. She’s born. “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Friends, will you
bear with me today, for I have awakened from a
dream in which a robin made with its shabby wings a kind of
veil behind which it shimmied and stomped something
from the south of Spain, its breast aflare, looking me
dead in the eye from the branch that grew into my window,
coochie-cooing my chin, the bird shuffling
its little talons left, then right, while
the leaves bristled against the plaster wall two of
them drifting onto my blanket while the bird opened and closed
the wings like a matador giving up on murder, jutting its
beak, turning a circle, and flashing, again, the ruddy bombast of its breast
by which I knew upon waking it was telling me in
no uncertain terms to bellow forth the
tubas and sousaphones, the whole rusty brass
band of gratitude not quite dormant in my belly. It said so in a human voice,
‘Bellow forth.’ And who among us could ignore such
odd and precise counsel? Here ye! Here ye! I am here to holler that I’ve
hauled tons– by which I don’t mean lots, I mean
tons– of cowshit and stood ankle deep
in swales of maggots swirling the spent beer grains
the brewery man was good enough to dump off holding his nose,
for they smell very bad, though make the compost writhe
giddy and lick its lips, twirling dung with my pitchfork
again and again with hundreds and hundreds of other people. We dreamt an orchard this
way, furrowing our brows, and hauling our
wheelbarrows, and sweating through our shirts, and less
than a year later, there was a party at which
trees were sunk into the well-fed
earth, one of which, a liberty apple,
after being watered in was tamped by a baby
barefoot with the bow hanging in her hair, biting her
lip in her joyous work. And friends this is the
realistic place I know. It makes me squirm like
a worm I’m so grateful. You could ride your bike
there or roller skate or catch the bus. There’s a fence and a
gate twisted by hand. There’s a fig tree taller
than you in Indiana. It’ll make you gasp. It might make you want to
stay alive, even, thank you. And thank you for not taking my
pal when the engine of his mind dragged him to swig fistfulls
of Xanax and a bottle or two of booze. And thank you for
taking my father a few years after his
own father went down. Thank you, mercy. Mercy, thank you. For not smoking meth
with your mother. Oh thank you for leaving
and for coming back. And thank you for what
inside my friends’ love bursts like a throng of
roadside goldenrod gleaming into the world, likely
hauling a shovel with her, like one named Aralee ought,
with hands big as a horse’s, and who, like one
named Aralee ought, will laugh time to time til
the juice runs from her nose. Oh, thank you for the
way a small thing’s wail makes the milk or
what once was milk in us gather into horses
huckle-buckling across a field. And thank you friends, when last
spring the hyacinth bells rang and the crocuses flaunted
their upturned skirts, and a quiet roved
the beehive which when I entered were
snugged two or three dead fist-sized clutches
of bees between the frames, almost clinging to one another,
this one’s tiny head pushed into another’s tiny wings,
one’s forelegs resting on another’s face,
the translucent paper of their wings fluttering
beneath my breath and when a few dropped to
the frames beneath, honey. And after falling down to cry,
everything’s glacial shine. And thank you, too. And thanks for the corduroy
couch I have put you on. Put your feet up. Here’s a blanket, a
pillow, dear ones, for I think this is
going to be long. I can’t stop my
gratitude, which includes, dear reader, you, for
staying here with me, for removing the lips
just so as I speak. Here is a cup of tea. I’ve spooned honey into it. And thank you the tiny bee’s
shadow perusing these words as I write them and the way
my love talks quietly when in the hive, so
quietly, in fact, you cannot hear her voice, but
only notice barely her lips moving in conversation. Thank you what does
not scare her in me, but makes her reach my way. Thank you the love she
is which hurts sometimes. And the time she misremembered
elephants in one of my poems, which here they come, garlanded
with morning glory and wisteria blooms, trombones all the
way down to the river. Thank you the quiet in
which the river bends around the elephant’s solemn trunk,
polishing stones, floating on its gentle back, the flock
of geese flying overhead. And to the quick and
gentle flocking of men to the old lady falling down
on the corner of Fairmount and 18th, holding patiently
with the softest parts of their hands her
cane and purple hat, gathering for her the
contents of her purse and touching her
shoulder and elbow. Thank you the cockeyed
court on which in a half-court
three on three, we oldheads made of some
runny-nosed kids a shambles, and the 61-year-old–
the 61-year-old after flipping a reverse
lay-up off a back door cut from my no-look pass to seal
the game ripped off his shirt and threw punches at the
gods and hollered at the kids to admire the pacemaker’s scar
grinning across his chest. Thank you the glad accordian’s
wheeze in the chest. Thank you the bagpipes. Thank you to the woman
barefoot in the gaudy dress for stopping her car in
the middle of the road and the tractor trailer behind
her, and the van behind it, whisking a turtle off the road. Thank you god of gaudy. Thank you paisley panties. Thank you the organ up my dress. Thank you the sheer
dress you wore kneeling in my dream
at the creek’s edge and the light
swimming through it. The koi kissing halos into the
glassy air, the room in my mind with the blinds
drawn where we nearly injure each other crawling into
the shawl of the other’s body. Thank you when I
just say it plain– we fuck each other dumb. And you, again, you,
for the true kindness it has been for you to remain
awake with me like this, nodding time to time and making
that little noise that I take to mean yes, or, I understand,
or, please go on, but not too long, or why are you
spitting so much, or easy Tiger, hands to yourself. I am excitable. I am sorry. I am grateful. I just want us to be
friends now, forever. Take this bowl of
blackberries from the garden. The sun has made them warm. I picked them just for you. I promise, I will try to
stay on my side of the couch. And thank you the baggie
of dreadlocks I found in the drawer while washing
and folding the clothes of our murdered friend, the
photo in which his arm slung around the sign to the ‘trail
of silences.’ Thank you the way before he died, he held
his hands open to us, for coming back in a waft
of incense or in the shape of a boy in another city looking
from between his mother’s legs, or disappearing into the stacks
after brushing by, for moseying back in dreams where, seeing us
lost and scared he put his hand on our shoulders and pointed
us to the temple across town. And thank you to the
man all night long hosing a mist on his
early-bloomed peach tree so that the hard frost not waste
the crop, the ice in his beard and the ghosts lifting from
him when the warming sun told him sleep now. Thank you the
ancestor who loved you before she knew you by
smuggling seeds into her braid for the long journey, who
loved you before he knew you by putting a walnut tree in
the ground, who loved you before she knew you by
not slaughtering the land. Thank you who did not bulldoze
the ancient grove of dates and olives, who sailed
his keys into the ocean and walked softly home, who
did not fire, who did not plunge the head into the
toilet, who said stop, don’t do that, who lifted
some broken someone up, who volunteered the way a plant
birthed of the receding plant is called a volunteer, like
the plum tree that marched beside the raised
bed in my garden, like the arugula
that marched itself between the blueberries, nary
a bayonette, nary an army, nary a nation, which usage of the word
volunteer familiar to gardeners the wide world made my
pal should ‘Oh!’ and dance and plunge his knuckles into the
luscious soil before gobbling two strawberries and digging
a song from his guitar made of wood from a tree
someone planted. Thank you. Thank you zinna, and gooseberry,
rudbeckia, and pawpaw, Ashmead’s kernel, cockscomb,
and scarlet runner, feverfew and lemonblam. Thank you knitbone and
sweetgrass and sunchoke and false indigo whose petals
stammered apart by bumblebees good lord please
give me a minute. And moonglow and
catkin and crookneck and painted tongue and
seedpod and johnny jump-up. Thank you what in us rackets
glad what gladrackets us. And thank you too, this
knuckleheaded heart, this pelican heart,
this gap-toothed heart flinging open its
gaudy maw to the sky, oh clumsy, oh bumblefucked,
oh giddy, oh dumbstruck, oh rickshaw, oh goat
twisting its head at me from my peach tree’s highest
branch, balanced impossibly gobbling the last
fruit, its tongue working like an engine, a
lone sweet drop tumbling by some a miracle into my
mouth like the smell of someone I’ve loved, heart like
an elephant screaming at the bones of its dead, heart
like a lady on the bus dressed head to toe in gold, the sun
shivering her shiny boots, singing Erykah Badu
to herself leaning her head against the window. And thank you the way one time
my father came back in a dream by plucking the two cables
beneath my chin like a bass fiddle’s strings and played
me until I woke singing. No kidding, I was singing
and smiling, thank you. Thank you, stumbling into the
garden where the Juneberry’s flowers had burst open like
the bells of French horns, the lily my mother
and I planted oozed into the air, the
bazillion ants labored in their earthen
workshops below, the collared greens waved in the
wind like the sales of ships, and the wasps swam in the
mint bloom’s viscous swill. And you, again you, for
hanging tight, friends. I know I can be long
winded sometimes. I want so badly to rub
the sponge of gratitude over every thing, including
you, which is awkward. The little soap running
into your hoodie or down your collar. Soon it will be
over, which is what the little girl in my dream
said, holding my hand, pointing at the
rolling sea and the sky hurtling our way like so
many buffalo, who said, it’s much worse than
you think, and sooner. To whom I said, no duh
child in my dreams. What do you think this
singing and shuddering is, what this screaming and
reaching and dancing and crying is, other than loving what
every second goes away? Goodbye, I mean to say. And thank you. Every day.” Thank you.

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