56. A matador giving up on murder
June 10th, 2023

Ross Gay - Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (ft. Bon Iver)
(File under: poetry, nature, horns, cowshit)

Listen: Bandcamp / Spotify

Do you have fifteen minutes? Could you find them? It’s just enough time for a poet to convince you that life is probably worth it.

Ross Gay’s ‘Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude’ is the only poem to have ever brought me to tears that also contains the word ‘bumblefucked’. So far, at least. It’s a poem that I first read in his 2015 collection of the same name, but only recently discovered exists in this other form, a recording read by Gay and dressed with noodly atmospheric swells by Bon Iver. I’d been waiting for the perfect time to listen until earlier this week, when I abandoned whatever errands I had to run on a sunny early evening, laid in the shade of a tree in a public park, and listened to it in its fifteen-minute entirety. Twice.

Twice because I loved it. Twice because the shade felt nice. Twice because there’s so much going on inside: nature, community, love, grief, sex, family, friendship, dreams, ancestry… There are big, brassy pronouncements delivered with a showman’s arm span, and tender confessions at library-appropriate volume. There’s a description of old guys gleefully wiping the floor with snot-nosed kids in 3x3 basketball. There are sympathetic lovers and helpful strangers, talking birds and keening elephants, root vegetables and perennial flowers—all of it powered by an engine of gratitude, shot through with thankyous.

I wanted to fully embrace what Gay’s poem was suggesting that afternoon, but to be honest with you, it’s been a minute since I’ve felt capable of gratitude. For a variety of reasons (some of which I’ve talked about previously) I feel as if I’ve been manning a lonely watchtower for a couple years, and the last thing I needed was a poet with armfuls of freshly picked flowers coaxing me to abandon my post. If Ross Gay was stirring up the ‘rusty brass band of gratitude’, a large part of me wanted to stuff a throw pillow in the business end of his sousaphone. To put it more plainly, I’ve been feeling wretched and isolated and have often struggled to find the wherewithal to get out of bed, let alone read ebullient poetry about gratitude.

I know, I’m really testing the limits of an email called Dept. of Enthusiasm. I’m working on it.

Here’s the magic of Ross Gay’s poem, though (and arguably all of his writing): It’s a compound eye, and every one of its thousand smaller eyes focus without discrimination, seeing both the joyful stuff and the awful stuff. In ‘Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude’ there are injustices, there are deceased friends and family, there are people who want to give up—but they’re planted in the same soil as the zinnias and the gooseberries and the scarlet runners. It seems to be saying: Stay in the tower as long as you need, but maybe appreciate the view a little while you’re up there; there’s no overstory without an understory.

Dept. of Enthusiasm is a charmingly sporadic email from me, Jez Burrows. You can read some past issues, or sign up below.