Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

In Terms of Joy

reviewed by Luther Hughes
          Gratitude: noun: the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. 

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh, 2015) by Ross Gay is field of fruit and flowers; each poem being either of these things—laid across the page. An abundance of life. Gay breathlessly utters the beautifulness of simple things; the simple things we often overlook. Gay offers us the opportunity to admire the trees, the flowers, the insects, the embraces, the conversations, the relationships, the heartbreak, the deaths, and much more. Gay is graceful, using lyrical narratives to guide us along life. We become nostalgic for our own pasts, in hopes we, too, could be as appreciative as Gay exudes.

The collection is sprinkled with odes in which further calls upon this idea of praising. In the poem, “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt,” we enter the calmness of the act of buttoning a shirt: “No one knew or at least / I didn’t know / they knew / what the thin disks / threaded here / on my shirt / might give me / in terms of joy”—the poem begins with the same mentality we have about this act. We are now aware of the joy of doing this; however, this utterance of joy while buttoning a shirt is brilliant. As the poem continues, we travel through the speaker’s motions as he explains how it feels when the buttons are on the opposite side:

the buttons
will be on the other
side and
I am a woman
that morning
slipping the glass
through its slot
I tread
differently that day
or some of it
my conversations
are different
and the car bomb slicing the air
and the people in it
for a quarter mile
and the honeybee’s
legs furred with pollen
mean another
thing to me

Gay travels from the immediate subject into the next seamlessly, first speaking of a shirt, then to initiating thoughts on how gender norms are placed on clothing, and thus on people. As the poem continues, the speaker travels to another subject: “for I must only use / the tips / of my fingers / with which I will / one day close / my mother’s eyes.” The speaker casually transitioning from one subject to the next fosters a wealthy stream of conscious. It comments on how our minds can easily journey through subjects while practicing ritual routines. And yet, the beauty of this piece still lies within the beginning lines—“I didn’t know / they knew / what the thin disks / threaded here / on my shirt / might give me / in terms of joy.” Gay is showing us that because we are always engaged in mindless things, this engagement is joyous.

In the poem, “Weeping,” we are introduced to various definitions of “weeping.” These definitions launch into the speaker’s niece and friend who left. The innocence subtly described by Gay, is painfully cute—we eventually forget that the two young girls are being used to describe the word “weeping.” The forgetfulness reminds us that sometimes in life we need to get lost inside our innocence. The young girls are playing around and having fun. There are adults around them, but they are off inside their own worlds. However, that innocence is lost quickly when the niece realizes her friend is gone, she has “left”: “the tears easily / rolling from her eyes.” Here, “left” develops into a dual meaning of physically leaving and dying. Having this duality intensifies the contrast between innocence and adulthood, or the interruption of innocence.


I'm thinking here of the proto-Indo-European root
which means the precise sound of a flower bud

unwrapping, and the tiny racket a seed makes
cracking open in the dark, which has evolved

in a handful of Latinate languages to mean the sound
of lovers exiting each other, implying as well the space

between them which usage is seen first in Dante 
in the fourteenth century, elbowing it for good into our mouths

and minds, and of course the sweet bead of sugar
imperceptibly moseying from the fig's tiny eye precisely

unlike sorrow which the assembly of insects sipping there
will tell you, when I tell you my niece, without fit or wail,

knowing her friend Emma had left and not said goodbye,
having spent the better part of the day resting on her finger, 

sometimes opening her wings, which were lustrous brown
with gold spots, to steady herself at the child-made

gale, or when she was tossed into the air while my niece
took her turn at pick-up sticks until calling Emma

by holding her finger in the air to which Emma would wobble down,
and Mikayla said Deal us in when we broke out the dominoes

at which they made a formidable duo, whispering to each other
instructions, and while the adults babbled our various dooms

Mikayla and Emma went into the bedroom where they sang
and danced and I think I heard Mikayla reading Emma

her favorite book, both of them slapping their thighs, leaning
into each other, and at bedtime Mikayla put on her PJs

carefully, first the left arm through while Emma teetered
on the right, then the other, and in the dark Mikayla whispered to Emma,

who had threaded her many legs into the band of Mikayla's sleeve,
while she drifted, watching Emma's wings slowly open

and close, and Emma must have flown away for good, judging
from the not brutal silence at breakfast, as Mikayla chewed

the waffle goofily with her one front tooth gone, and weakly smiled,
looking into the corners of the room for her friend, for Emma, 

who had left without saying goodbye, the tears easily
rolling from her eyes, when I say she was weeping, 

when I say she wept. 

I am reminded of something Robin Coste Lewis said in an interview: finding beauty in both the ugly and the pretty. I am reminded of the movie “Luv,” where a young child watches his uncle die in front of his face after spending all day with him. I am reminded of my mother cooking dinner the night before her sister passed away. And this is the wonderful doings of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.Ross Gay gives us exactly what his title entails—a catalog. We are given a basket of memories, which allows us to admire our own day to day life. However, this basket is filled with all things human—from the good to the bad, Gay’s ability to thread experiences together is elegant. He does not hold back. He does not go too far. The book’s final poem, and title poem, is a handsome piece giving thanks to all things interacted with, including us, the readers:

And you, again, you, for the kindness
it has been for you to remain awake
with me like this, nodding time to time
and making that noise which 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.

No, Ross, we are grateful for you