ON ROSS GAY’S LIKELY DISPASSION
When is dispassion in a poem more passionate than heat? When flatness is more vivid than vigorously-expressed emotion? We know Ross Gay as a poet who does not exclude uplift from his poems (his third book is called Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude), and who is unabashed about finding positivity in unusual places (his most recent book, of brief essays, is The Book of Delights). His writing nonetheless often addresses serious political, psychologically fraught issues. To produce something politically and emotionally invested that also invests in gratitude, delight and happiness requires a delicate sort of irony. Here’s “A Small Needful Fact,” in which Gay writes about the news from a few years ago—news still highly relevant—in a poem which went somewhat viral in social media poetry circles when it was first published at www.splitthisrock.org.
A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
Eric Garner died, age 43, on Staten Island , in July 2014, after a police officer put him in a chokehold. Garner, a former horticulturalist for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, who quit for health reasons, had a police record for assault, resisting arrest, larceny and selling “loosies” (unlicensed cigarettes)—none of these a death penalty offense—and a reputation in his neighborhood for generosity, congeniality and peacemaking. He had six kids, including, at the time of his death, a three-month old child, and three grandkids. NYPD officers approached Garner on suspicion of illegally selling “loosies”; Garner told police he was tired of being harassed and wasn’t selling cigarettes. They set about arresting him. One officer took Garner’s wrist behind his back, and Garner, a big guy, swatted his arms away. The officer put him in a chokehold and pulled him to the ground, then removed his arm from Garner’s neck, and pushed Garner’s face into the ground while four officers restrained him. Garner repeated “I can’t breathe” 11 times while lying face down on the sidewalk. After he lost consciousness, officers turned him on his side to ease his breathing. An ambulance arrived seven minutes later. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital about an hour later. Medical examiners ruled the death a homicide. In the wake of Garner’s death, during demonstrations against police violence against African-Americans, many protesters bore signs reading “I can’t breathe.”
“A Small Needful Fact” performs a service: It is an act of retrieval, of the man Garner from newsprint and television signal, also from being a rallying point for activists—an honorable but still symbolic use of the man. Without being intimately biographical, the poem refuses to allow the man to be subsumed into the facts of his death, or into public opinion about his death. It toys with an easy-enough but compelling irony while doing so, that the man who died saying “I can’t breathe” made it easier, in his life, for other people to breathe. This is a poem made of information inflected by verbal tics, by hemmings and hawings, in all likelihoods, and perhapses. If you isolate the poem’s information—if you separate event from opinion—you get
Eric Garner worked for the Parks and Rec. Horticultural Department, using his very large hands to plant things gently. Plants, which can live for years after one plants them, feed small and necessary creatures, are pleasant touch and smell, convert sunlight into food and make it easier for humans—that is, all of us—to breathe.
I’ve just made the poem disappear. The only trace of imagination I’ve left in is the notion that his very large hands were gentle. Big men often have big hands, and people who deal with plants probably do need to be capable of gentleness. So let’s take it as evidence.
Here is what I took out:
for some time
in all likelihood
some of them
in all likelihood
continue to do what such plants do
One line there is a prayer: “continue to do what such plants do.” That’s hopeless and hopeful: Garner can’t continue, he’s dead—but maybe society, maybe America can do what plants do, which is, among other things, grow? The rest of those lines might be the flattest, most boring set of words ever, all vagueness and circumlocution, indicating a speaker uncomfortable and also sometimes stuffy: perhaps instead of maybe, and—good god—“In all likelihood” twice.
In fact, all this hesitating and hedging makes the poem. With it, Gay characterizes his speaker as uncertain and uncomfortable. He hesitates, circles, hesitates again, feels something isn’t right, knows just enough to draw a few conclusions. Not personal ones. He’s not mourning a friend. By refusing to pretend it’s personal, by refusing to take on the other man’s tragedy, by staying at harrumphing distance (perhaps…in all likelihood) the poem allows Gay, and us, to stand back far enough to see something important: Garner as human being, as worker—unsainted, unremarkable, yet, in his ordinary workerliness, oxygen-giving, a small thing that matters a little.
And all those likes. Seven of them in all, two of those inside the word likelihood (which maybe contains a suggestive nearness to the word livelihood) and one inside the word likely. Garner, in Gay’s poem, is a likely fellow.
When I get to the likes that crescendo and close the poem, I have the illusion that I’m reading simile—so I have the illusion that I’m going to be allowed the grace and escape of metaphor. Not so: Gay’s like…like…like provides a simple list of untranscendent comparisons. What do plants do? things like house and feed small and necessary creatures, like be pleasant to touch and smell, like convert sunlight to food, like make it easier for us to breathe.
There’s a message in this poem, I guess, but it’s not transformative. The likes take us nowhere, and nothing can ever change again for Eric Garner—he can go nowhere now. What we see at the end is just a man who (unlike us) is no longer breathing. The poem’s flat language is an act of trust, and what makes this an idealistic poem. Instead of trusting metaphoric leaps or originality or any sort of verbal sparks, it trusts flat, banal, utterly normal language. Maybe that makes it seem possible that banal, flat, normal humans can do better than we have been doing