At Squaw Valley

gayIt’s the end of June, and I’m at the poetry workshop in Squaw Valley. While I hardly ever publish long poems here, I heard one tonight that just blew me away. Evie Shockley talked about how poets use time, especially the way they use it to address race and history, and her first example was this poem by Ross Gay:


   for Don Belton

Who sits like this on the kitchen floor
at two in the morning turning over and over

the small silent body in his hands
with his eyes closed fingering the ornate

tendril of ivy cast delicately into the spoon
that came home with me eight months ago

from a potluck next door during which
the birthday boy so lush on smoke

ad drink and cake made like a baby
and slept on the floor with his thumb

in his mouth until he stumbled through my garden
to my house the next morning where I was frying up

stove top sweet potato biscuits, and making
himself at home as was his way,

after sampling one of my bricks
told me I could add some baking powder

to his and could I put on some coffee
and turn up the Nina Simone and rub, maybe,

his feet, which I did, the baking powder,
stirring it in, and I like to think,

unlikely though it is, those were the finest
biscuits Don every ate, for there was organic coconut oil

and syrup bought from a hollering man
at the market who wears a rainbow cap

and dances to disguise his sorrow,
and it might be a ridiculous wish,

but the sweet potatoes came from a colony
just beyond my back door, smothering

with their vines the grass and doing their part
to make my yard look ragged and wild

to untrained eyes, the kale and chard so rampant
some stalks unbeknownst dropped into the straw mulch

and the cherry tomatoes shone like ornaments
on a drunken Christmas tree and the blackberry vines

gnawed through their rusty half-ass trellis,
this in Indiana where I am really not from, where,

for years, Negroes weren’t even allowed entry,
and where the rest stop graffiti might confirm

the endurance of such sentiments, and when
I worried about this to Don on a cool September evening,

worried it might look
Don in his kindness abundant and floral, knowing my anxiety

before I state it, having been around,
having gone antiquing in Martinsville a few weeks back

and been addressed most unkindly by a passing truck
or two, trucks likely adorned with the stars and bars,

knowing the typhoons race makes our minds do,
twirling with one hand a dreadlock and patting my back with the other

asked, smiling sadly and knowingly, niggerish?
before saying, it looks beautiful, and returning to some rumination

on the garden boy of his dreams,
whose shorts were very short, and stomach taut

and oily enough to see his reflection in.
Don told me this as we walked arm in arm

through our small neighborhood,
which he asked me if he could do,

is this ok, he asked, knowing mostly
how dense and sharp the dumb fear

of mostly straight boys can be—oh Don—
walking arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder,

his hand almost patting my forearm, resting there,
down the small alley next to the graveyard,

fall beginning to shudder into the leaves,
and Don once dreamed he was in that graveyard

next to his house on 4th, where in real life
we sang Diana Ross’s “Missing You” while decorating

his kitchen, where I once asked to borrow
a signed Jamaica Kincaid novel at which

Don made one sound by sucking his teeth that indicated
I was both impossibly stupid and a little bit cute

and in the dream in the graveyard
where century-old oak trees look giants trudging

into a stiff wind, and some gravestones are old
enough to be illegible and lean back as though

consulting the sun, Don was floating
into the air which, pleasant at first,

became terrifying, he told me, beginning to cry,
just a little, as the world beneath him

grew smaller and smaller, his house
became a toy, the trees’ huge limbs like the arms

now of small people, calling him down,
but he couldn’t stop going higher, he said, crying,

just a little, and I have inserted myself
two or three times into the dream, imagining a rope

cinched to his waist by which Don might be tethered
to this world, snatching it as it whips uncoiling

through the grass at my feet, and gripping it
with all my strength until it almost hauls me up

and takes the skin of my palms with it, twisting slowly into the sky
at which I become like the trees here on earth shouting

Come back, come back
running some blocks looking into the sky,

first down 4th, but as the wind sends him this way and that
I too veer through backyards, hopping a fence or two,

not wanting to take my eyes from him,
not wanting to lose him, as he sails

in and out of the low clouds, looking down
with his sad eyes, just as he did

when he said at breakfast I’m a survivor, I survived,
this 53-year old gay black man,

to which we did a little dance
listing the myriad bullets he’d dodged,

swirling the biscuits in their oily syrup,
Don occasionally poking his fork into the air for emphasis,

laughing and sipping coffee and
shaking our heads like we couldn’t believe it,

and having survived Don wanted a child to love,
and we made plans that I might make the baby

with my sweetie and he could be the real dad, reading
and cooking and worrying, while I played in the garden

and my sweetheart made the dough,
which maybe would have worked,

though Don never once cleaned a dish, and when I told him
to put his goddamned plate in the sink, he writhed

in his seat and called me bitch before plopping it in,
returning to his Destiny’s Child tune about survival,

while he scooped and slurped the remaining batter
with this spoon in my hands, into which I stare, seeing none of this.

I swore when I got into this poem I would convert
this sorrow into some kind of homey with the little musics

I can sometimes make with these scribbled artifacts
of our desolation. I can’t even make a metaphor

of my refection upside down and barely visible
in the spoon. I wish one single thing made sense.

To which I say: Oh get over yourself.
That’s not the point.

After Don was murdered I dreamt of him,
hugging him and saying you have to go now.

fixing his scarf and pulling his wool overcoat snug,
weeping and tugging down his furry Russian cap

to protect his ears, kissing his eyes and cheeks
again and again, you have to go,

cinching his coat tight by the lapels,
for which Don peered at me again with those sad eyes,

or through me, or into me,
the way my dead do sometimes,

looking straight into their homes,
which hopefully have flowers

in a vase on a big wooden table,
and a comfortable chair or tow,

and huge windows through which light
pours to wash clean and make a touch less awful

what forever otherwise will hurt.

Ross Gay
from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, a book I’m going to have to get. I just spent the last 45 minutes typing this poem to see if I could understand how he does what he does. I can’t. Like all the best work, it seems effortless.


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