Friday, May 8, 2009

Ross Gay's Against Which

Thank God we have Mann's sweet humor to keep us rooted when we talk about bodies and the gym.

Although he does not define himself as queer in any way (as far as I can tell), African-American Ross Gay deals with the same material. But also raises the bar, offering an unforced transcendent moment in his sonnet "Poem Beginning with a Line Overheard at the Gym" from his book "Against Which."

In its entirety, here's the poem:

I'd drive a thousand miles to suck the dick
of the man who fucked her once. If you're like
me, the pristine lilt of iambic verse will halt
your dumb work on the bench press. You also love

the hyperbolic rattling of logic's cage.
Mostly, you love the way the loins fuel
the tongue's conjure. But what grand sadness dragged
in misplaced desire; as though from another's memory

of smoke we might glean some end
of ache. Truth be told, ache's shop is long
set up. Is birth's phantom. Let's, instead admire
the tether. Its

wrangle with the loamy earth for the body,
the keepsake.

If you want to make a great poem, any subject matter has potential pitfalls, especially if it's as potentially insignificant as going to the gym. Not only does Gay dare to use that content, but he also invokes a good amount of the words you'd expect: desire, memory, body, ache, love, work, bench press. Through line breaks, syntax, connotative meaning, his sonnet transforms these cliches into something special.

With the initial stanza, I was a bit nervous: I didn't want Gay to explicitly (or implicitly state) that as a poet, he transcends his body, that his poetics keeps him away from the solipsism of working out. Scansion can never eclipse exercise routine.

"Dumb" body work is ritual work for the soul. In fact, maybe I'd even go a step further. Maintaining the body is an intelligence, not any less (maybe more) important than writing poems. But Gay quickly rebounds from a questionable start.

His rhythm is unobtrusive, subtle. As when he admits the lyric "you" and I "love fuels the tongue's conjure."

And then he does something truly neat. As opposed to a lot of poets who would, without any reservation, emphasize the pathos of desire, he offers a corrective through imperative. (Most poets don't have the conviction to tell us how to live, and isn't that one of the why we ultimately read? Think Virgil's Eclogues. Think Horace's Ars Poetica)

Gay instructs: "admire the tether." Tether: What keeps desire's flux controllable. What often centers us. As long it's firmly grounded, like the device of the same name that holds a volleyball. And doesn't the role of a tether help "fuel" our bodies, encouraging us to work out. And through that workout, we are given our bodies back, even stronger, even of more value, the ultimate "keepsake."

Gay, an expert in infusing his words with double meanings, only falters once. I'm not sure how "smoke" relates to the conceit of the gym, working out. Otherwise, through his word choice, he creates the most impressively tight work out poem.


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