In association with the Appleton Book Festival, Lawrence welcomed poet Ross Gay on Thursday, Oct. 11 for a reading of some of his recent work. The event was sponsored by the Cargill Foundation Sustainability Grant and the Mia Paul Poetry fund. According to the Appleton Book Festival’s website, the event imagines “ways that delight, joy, and love are integral to the ways we care for the land, but also to the ways we care for ourselves and each other as the land.”
You can probably see why this was a requirement for a class I’m in called Environmental Justice and Citizenship. I arrived in Warch’s Esch Hurvis Room to find it populated by my classmates and an impressive number of other Lawrence students and older adults who I assumed were patrons of the Book Festival. I could barely find an empty seat. I wasn’t too surprised by the large turnout; our class had read some of Gay’s poetry earlier in the term, and I knew he was a well-known and well received a poet. Adding to his list of accolades, he recently received the National Book Critics Circle Award for his work.
Gay had that effortless charisma that seems to accompany any individual who is at peace with themselves. His delivery was impassioned but never felt forced. As I listened to him, Gay struck me as an especially authentic person, not feeling the need to conceal or exaggerate any part of his personality. The anecdotes and context he provided for almost every piece gave the audience a glimpse of the source of inspiration and intent behind each.
In my class, we have explored the ways that environmental values can be communicated through art, and how art can be an important contributor to the pursuit of environmental justice. Integral to this discussion is an examination of how we represent our relationship to the land. The ground beneath our feet and the landscapes that greet us as we gaze outwards relate us constantly and immediately to our environment. Like blinking and breathing, being on land is such an obvious state of affairs that it usually goes unnoticed.
During Gay’s reading, I appreciated how his poetry demonstrated the intimate, visceral relationship that one can have with the land if it is treated with sufficient attention and reverence. He exalted even the most unsavory aspects of the land and all that proceeds from it: creatures dying, decomposing and returning to the Earth, maggots writhing in dirt and filth — all of this was treated with an esteem usually reserved for mountainous landscapes and butterflies.
This attitude was most clearly conveyed in a poem titled “To The Mulberry Tree,” in which a bird relieves itself directly into Gay’s open mouth. Instead of reacting with revulsion, as I surely would, Gay describes at length the subtle textures and flavors of the excrement, including notes of mulberry — to be expected because he knows there are many mulberry trees in the area. His selections were full of such jarring scenarios. Gay repeatedly challenged our tacit expectation that art should represent nature as idealized and pacified.
He also challenged the notion that “we” are completely distinct from the land. Several poems confused our intuitions as to where we stop and the land begins. One poem, titled “Feet,” presented our bodies in analogy to plants. We are rooted in our feet and rise from the Earth, our arms and fingers extending from our “trunk” as branches.
Several of Gay’s selections were chosen from a forthcoming collection called “The Book of Delights.” The collection is comprised of essays written over the course of one year, each speaking to a delight that he experienced on a particular day. My favorite one involved a day during which Gay was unable to find a public bathroom in New York City and experienced the delight of finally permitting himself to urinate in his car — “a deprivation of a deprivation,” he explained. Here again is another challenge to our usual sensibilities. We all know that such relief can indeed be delightful, but it feels wrong to admit it.
To me, Gay’s poetry imparted a sense of the wholeness of nature and the gratitude it deserves. His ecstatic treatment of nature’s underbelly indicates that beyond the agreeable and life-giving aspects of land, there is much to value. It turns out we need the decomposers and defecators. While this message could be conveyed in a preachy, pedantic lecture about nutrient cycles and evolutionary niches, it can be delivered with much greater gravitas by art such as the poetry of Ross Gay. As he shoves your face into the dirt and shows you how to see its raw, unassuming beauty, its inherent value suggests itself. If through Gay’s words, people can learn to find delight, joy and love in caring for the land, his will be a shining example of how art can impact people and, by extension, the world and all its amazing, terrifying land.