Ball State’s Katy Didden considers how “poems are a place,” and explores how this idea plays out in the work of Indiana poet Ross Gay.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the poetry grapevine came alive. It seemed like an inverse proportion—the more isolated we all strived to be, the more the online grapevine sprouted, curled, expanded, reached out.
As one example, the Academy of American Poets invited readers to post poems on Twitter using #ShelterinPoems. The phrase “Shelter in Poems” sticks with me. Of course, it puns on our national guidelines to “Shelter in Place” to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Changing “Shelter in Place” to “Shelter in Poems” seems like a radical argument. It makes me think: in what way is a poem a place? in what way does a poem shelter?
At the same time as I was collecting “Shelter in Place” poems, I got an email inviting me to join a “Poetry Exchange”: essentially, I was supposed to email one poem to a stranger, hoping for dozens of poems from strangers in return. I sent Ross Gay’s “Sorrow is Not My Name” to a woman in Illinois. A week later, I got a poem not from a stranger, but from my former student, Chris. The grapevine doubled back on itself. He sent me a poem I love to teach: Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.”
“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” is a poem about refuge, and it is itself a refuge. When I think of “refuge,” I picture a place of rest, but not a home. It is a temporary space; its comforts are sweeter because they are finite. Used in a sentence, the word is often paired with “from” or “against”— a refuge arises out of necessity; it is where you go to fortify yourself on a long journey. We need refuge the most in times when we face difficulty.
A refuge is not necessarily an escape. Several years ago, when I was studying the history of the elegy, one of my professors introduced me to Ellen Zetzel Lambert’s Placing Sorrow: A Study of the Pastoral Elegy Convention from Theocritus to Milton. In that book, Lambert makes the argument that pastoral settings in poetry do not protect the speaker from loss, but “can contain pain and suffering.” She argues that in pastoral poems, speakers retreat to nature not to escape sorrows, but to remove all the obstacles to feeling sorrows deeply.
Both the virus and the recent murders of Dreasjon Reed, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Tony McDade have laid bare (for the millionth time) how America’s racist policies perpetuate white supremacy and put Black lives in mortal danger. Memes abound to show that the fatigue white people who are starting to organize against racial injustice are feeling is nothing compared to the weariness Black Americans feel after 400 years of resisting oppression. This fatigue is real and instructive: for this movement towards justice to continue, for anti-racist work to be sustainable for the long term, we need moments of refuge on the long journey. A refuge is a safe place for us to take stock of our emotions, especially in the context of community.
“Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” helps me to imagine how things might be. In this poem, Ross Gay describes the shared work and vision that created the Bloomington Community Orchard:
twirling dung with my pitchfork again and again with hundreds and hundreds of other people, we dreamt of 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 in the well-fed earth
Throughout the poem, Gay depicts moments of close attention “thank you the tiny bee’s shadow/ perusing these words as I write them.” These images of precisely observed reality, of what is, are like planted seeds from which what’s imagined, what could be, grows: “She misremembered elephants/ in one of my poems which, oh, here/ they come, garlanded with morning glory and wisteria.”
The way Gay places the real and the fictional side by side is an argument against exclusion, a mocking of walls—there is a porousness here, like the gate to the orchard itself, an open-access border between dream and reality, between living and dead, between here and there, between now and the future. This is also seen in the way the “you” in the poem is fluid—at times the speaker uses “you” to address the reader, at times “you” addresses God, or a lover, and so each “you” is all of these at once. Gay also defies boundaries by breaking the “fourth wall” of the poem, frequently addressing the reader as if he could show them concrete hospitality across time and space: “Put your feet up. Here’s a light blanket,/ a pillow, dear one[…] Here is a cup of tea. I have spooned honey in it.”
This poem is persuasive precisely because the place Gay describes is not some utopian, ideal world where there is no sorrow. Instead, it is a place that welcomes those who seek solace. Importantly, Gay tunes into issues of climate change; his description of dying bees echoes the global woes of “colony collapse”: “a quiet roved/ the beehive which when I entered/ were snugged two or three dead/ fist-sized clutches of bees between the frames.” In this poem, this orchard, Gay also witnesses to the sorrows caused by human violence and injustice, as he grieves the violent murder of IU Professor Don Belton: “The way before he died he held/ his hands open to us.” In fact, the entire poem resolves in an acknowledgement of grief: “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?” As my students and I discover each time we read this poem, the poem of praise and the poem of mourning are two sides of the same coin.
If we cannot crawl inside a poem, I do think poems provide a refuge; poems give us the means to clarify our feelings. I don’t mean to simplify our feelings; I mean that, somehow, the rhythm of poetic speech helps us find a way forward—it sets us in motion. This brings to mind how chants galvanize the marchers at a protest, and how to hear those chants is to have a visceral sense of the scale of solidarity. Poetic rhythm gives us a pattern to follow. It also builds connection between readers—although we are separated, we can feel poetic rhythm simultaneously in our bodies, a dance. I mean, the more I study poetry the more I am convinced that its core is a gathering together. Not just that we draw together to hear poetry performed, but also the fact that language is rhythmic means it reaches across space and time.
Every time I read “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” I always find something new. By the light of the revolutionary ideas we’re encountering in America right now, the passage I find the most moving is the following:
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 reseeding plant is called a volunteer.
The lines “who did not fire” and “who said stop/ don’t do that” are echoing through my head lately. How can we follow the example of people who made brave, revolutionary choices, who checked their own fears and violent impulses and saved lives? I also love thinking about all of the people featured here who contributed to a future goodness they knew they’d never live to see. How many of us think of our work as a process of making sacrifices now in order that generations of people we will never meet can thrive? I take that back. In so far as a poem is a place, it is a place where it is possible to meet both our ancestors and our descendants. The poem offers a meeting of our minds across time, connected by the root of rhythm, which is, after all, the key to memory. I find that this poem, each time I read it, teaches me how to take temporary refuge in these stories, these real connections, these certainties of love in action, as a means of moving forward.
Unlike many poems that are refuges in imagination only, “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” describes an actual refuge, the orchard: “you could ride your bike there/ or roller skate or catch the bus.” As I thanked Chris for sending me the poem, I wrote “Maybe we should all plan to visit the orchard when it's safe to gather again--that will give me something to look forward to.” Chris wrote back “Yes, let's plan to visit the orchard sometime when this is all done! Maybe Kathryn [another former student] will be nearby by then as well.” I thought of all my former students, wondering if I could invite them, and what it would mean for us to read poems together in the orchard, and how we could carry that refuge forward. “That’s a plan,” I said.
Katy Didden is poet with a special interest in the relationship between text and image; the history of the elegy; and poetry and the environment. Her first book, The Glacier’s Wake, won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize from Pleiades Press, and was published in 2013. She is currently working on a manuscript of mixed media erasure poems titled The Lava on Iceland, and she was awarded a new faculty grant from Ball State, where she is assistant professor of English, to conduct research in Iceland in the summer of 2016.