Ross Gay Poems

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For Some Slight I Can'T Quite Recall

Was with the pudgy hands of a thirteen-year-old
that I took the marble of his head
just barely balanced on his reedy neck

To My Best Friend's Big Sister

One never knows
does one
how one comes to be

The Truth

Because he was 38, because this
was his second job, because
he had two daughters, because his hands
looked like my father's, because at 7
he would walk to the furniture warehouse,
unload trucks 'til 3 AM, because I
was fourteen and training him, because he made
$3.75 an hour, because he had a wife
to look in the face, because
he acted like he respected me,
because he was sick and would not call out
I didn't blink when the water
dropped from his nose
into the onion's perfectly circular
mouth on the Whopper Jr.
I coached him through preparing.
I did not blink.
Tell me this didn't happen.
I dare you.

Wedding Poem

for Keith and Jen

Friends I am here to modestly report
seeing in an orchard
in my town
a goldfinch kissing
a sunflower
again and again
dangling upside down
by its tiny claws
steadying itself by snapping open
like an old-timey fan
its wings
again and again,
until, swooning, it tumbled off
and swooped back to the very same perch,
where the sunflower curled its giant
swirling of seeds
around the bird and leaned back
to admire the soft wind
nudging the bird's plumage,
and friends I could see
the points on the flower's stately crown
soften and curl inward
as it almost indiscernibly lifted
the food of its body
to the bird's nuzzling mouth
whose fervor
I could hear from
oh 20 or 30 feet away
and see from the tiny hulls
that sailed from their
good racket,
which good racket, I have to say
was making me blush,
and rock up on my tippy-toes,
and just barely purse my lips
with what I realize now
was being, simply, glad,
which such love,
if we let it,
makes us feel.

If you think you know enough to say this poem
is about good hair, I'll correct you
and tell you it's about history
which is the blacksmith of our tongues.
Our eyes. Where you see misunderstanding
I see knuckles and teeth for sale
in a storefront window. I see the waterlogged
face of the fourteen-year-old boy.
The bullet's imperceptible sizzle
toward an unarmed man. And as you ask me to sign the book
that is not mine, your gaze shifting between
me and the author's photo, whispering,
but that's not you? I do not
feel sorry for you. No. I think only that when a man
is a concept he will tell you about the smell
of smoke. He will tell you the distance
between heartbreak and rage.

ode to the flute

A man sings
by opening his
mouth a man
sings by opening
his lungs by
turning himself into air
a flute can
be made of a man
nothing is explained
a flute lays
on its side
and prays a wind
might enter it
and make of it
at least
a small final song


a euphemism for some
yank and gobble
no doubt some
yummy tumble or other
like monkey-spanking
or hiding the salami
of course your mind
goes there
loosey-goose that you are
me too! me too!
you have a favorite
don't lie
I've heard you say them
tending the hive
eating the melon
how's the tunnel traffic
or as a "massage therapist"
would say to my pal
when his loneliness
dragged him to a carpeted room
in an apartment building
in Chinatown
where the small hands
lathered his body
open the door
sharing with the ants
some entymologic metaphor
the chronic yoke
in love-making
not only of body to body
but life to death
sharing with the ants
or the specific act of dragging with the tongue
one's sweat-gilded body from the tibia's
look-out along the rope bridge
of the Achilles marching
across the long plains of the calf
and the meticulously unnamed zone behind the knee
over the hamstring into
use your imagination for Chrissakes
but I will tell you it is dark there
and sweet
sharing with the ants
but actually that's not at all
what I'm talking about
I mean actually
sharing with the ants
which I did September 21
a Friday in 2012
when by fluke or whim or
prayer I jostled the crotch-high
fig tree whose few fruit had been
scooped by our fat friends
the squirrels
but found shriveled and purple
into an almost testicular papoose
smuggled beneath the fronds
of a few leaves
one stalwart fruit which
I immediately bit in half
only to find a small platoon of ants
twisting in the meat
and when I spit out my bite
another 4 or 5 lay sacked out
their spindly legs
pedaling slow nothing
one barely looking at me through a half-open eye
the way an infant might
curled into his mother's breast
and one stumbled dazed through my beard
tickling me as it tumbled
head over feet over head
over feet back into the bite
in my hand the hooked sabers
of their mandibles made soft kneading
the flesh their claws
heavy and slow with fruit
their armor slathered plush
as the seeds shone above
the sounds of their work
like water slapping
a pier at night
and not one to disrupt an orgy
I mostly gobbled around their nuzzle and slurp
careful not to chomp a reveler
and nibbling one last thread of flesh
noticed a dozey ant nibbling the same
toward me its antennae
just caressing my face
its pincers
slowing at my lips both
of our mouths sugared
and shining both of us
twirling beneath the fig's
seeds spinning like a newly
discovered galaxy
that's been there forever


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.


You might rightly wonder what I am doing here

in the passenger's seat of this teal Mitsubishi

with the hood secured by six or seven thick strips of duct tape,

sitting next to Myself, who sits in the driver's seat,

having quickly pulled into the lot of the Kentucky Fried Chicken

on Rt. 413 in Levittown, Pennsylvania,

from which years ago my father would sometimes

bring home a bucket of hot wings to share

just with me, his comrade in spice and grease and gore,

rattling the little charnel house like a bell

to indicate a joy impending and plucking

the lid to waft the scent toward the vents

into my room where I'd catch a whiff and toss my Avengers

comic to vault down the steps before high-fiving

my smiling old man, stinking of his own hours working

at the Roy Rogers down on Cottman, and plunge into the scuzzy muck,

the two of us silently cleaning the bones while the laugh track

of some re-run ebbed and flowed;

you wonder rightly what it is I am saying

quietly in the ear of Myself, and what I am pointing at

with one hand while the other rests on Myself's shoulder,

tenderly if not a bit tentatively, for Myself

is still a very big man, and quick, and trying hard

not to take anyone with him over the ledge on which he stands,

which you can tell when he just barely looks in my direction

a bit animal with sweat glistening the back of his neck

and his temples, his jaw flexed with his hands

clutching the wheel, the slightest whistle in his breath

while beneath the looming sign of the Colonel smiling

like one concealing some awful and bloody secret

a family in the rearview parks their minivan

and not mostly noticing us makes their way out:

an older brother gripping the wrist of a smaller one

who clutches his purple and yellow jacket; an infant snugged

in its father's arm tipping its head back to see us

from beneath its light blue cap, opening and closing its hand

as the glass doors swing shut behind them.


You likewise might wonder how Myself has arrived

at this flamboyant terror, an accretion

the way in caves, where nothing without light

is seen, minerals will gather into impossible spires

waiting to impale a thing, that he actually, while driving

home from his dear mother's apartment, saw

in his mind with a clarity like the semis behind him

trudging toward the on-ramp to Philadelphia or New Jersey,

like the carts wandering about the PathMark lot or the woman

in a housedress and slippers waiting at the crosswalk

smoking a cigarette, his own hands working a vial

of some sort from which he poured a poison

into his mother's half-eaten tub of blueberry yogurt,

which imagined matricide is perhaps especially jarring

to Myself, given the awkward walking he does

avoiding ants and other tiny beasts,

given the long prayer he found himself giving

the chickadee that met its death against his windshield,

lodging under the wiper blades and drumming the glass

with the one free wing until he could pull over, whereupon

Myself did kiss the unlucky thing, folding its wings into its body,

before laying it in a small hole at the foot of a dogwood tree

in full regalia, its thousand flowers like a congregation

walking arm in arm in the river.


And knowing Myself well now I can see

what murderous birds flew numerous and hungry

into the attic, shrikes especially, working

their ways in at the slimmest shims of light

between shingles and through rotholes wedging first

their heads in without blinking and collapsing

the bones of their bodies their tongues thrust out

and necks made long wriggling in leaving behind

clumps of shivering feathers blood-glued to the cracks

one after the next prying through loose boards

snapping at the tail feathers of the ones in front of them

the clawing feet skitting in one after the next

until the attic roared with soaring and the war

screams of birds clutching one another with talons

by the neck or back and veering quick

toward any piercing thing barb or thorn

or snapped branch jeering into the air like this

the impaled thing writhing and fluttering

once or twice its wings and twisting open its beak

from which came no sound—

which is, in fact, the wrong metaphor, the more I think of it,

for the birds in question favor the long view

of open meadows. They love exposed perches on which they fasten

their talons and unwrap their beautiful wings in the wind.

And the birds I'm talking about are not birds at all,

but common sorrow made murderous simply by nailing

the shingles tight, and caulking with the tar always boiling out back

all possible cracks. Which is to say, the metaphor here

has become the sealing up as much as any bird, has become

the way Myself had made unwittingly a habit of slathering

mortar everywhere, almost by accident,

for fear of what might forever slip in and be felt;

which was, in addition to everything else, simply, goddamn,

how sad my mother was when my father died, goddamn,

how sad was Myself; and how scared was Myself,

scared nearly, in fact, to death, at his mother afraid

or not sleeping well or not unpacking for months in her new apartment,

outside of which Myself, visiting, would sit in his car

for a half hour or more, staring

into the yellow aluminum siding's patina and the seam

it made with the fake white brick

as he felt the bones of his chest breaking which was the feeling

of the very real terror he had at what his hands might do, which his hands

would never do, which was like the wood shake helpless against the prying

shrike, clawing and snapping its hunter's beak, which, I am happy

to remind us both again, was not the feeling at all. All Myself was feeling,

in fact, was not feeling his heart break again and again.

The way he did for some time sitting with his mother

in her living room, watching the Eagles that year have a good season

while she sobbed and didn't sleep well and in some way

shone in her sorrow complete though it was very hard

for him to admire for the roaring in his head, which was nothing

more, it turns out, than the sounds of not weeping, the sounds

of sadness turned back. Nothing savage, nothing cruel or vicious,

not a bird in sight—just sadness. Which is to say,

in other words, just being alive.


My Beloved Chickenshit; My Sweet

Little Chickenshit; don't run,

My Baby. Don't flee, My Honey.

Hunker down. Hunker Down.


There is, in my yard, a huge and beautiful peach tree.

I planted the thing as a three-foot whip,

a spindly prayer with a tangle of roots so delicate,

so wild, I took ten minutes to feather them apart

before spreading them in the hole like a lightning storm

in one of those images of the brain. Now the tree reaches almost

into the grumpy neighbor out back's yard, the one who once

snarled at me and my house why would anyone paint a house that color?,

and whose unsmiling middle-aged daughter mows the lawn

twice a day, though I've seen in March or April

when the tree's thousand pink mouths unfurl

and blow kisses to everyone in sight, the burdened curl

of the old lady's back uncoil—I've seen her stand up some and wink

at that tree, and, no kidding, saw her once teeter out

in a gloomy gray pantsuit and, scrubbed by the bloom,

change her costume right then and there to something

frilled and blazing, which she wore on her trot

through the neighborhood whistling to the birds swirling

behind her. In this neck of the woods you have to prune

a peach tree if you don't want the fruit to rot, if you don't want

all that fragrant grandstanding to be for naught. Which is why

today, this sunny April afternoon with no rain or real freeze forecasted,

I dig out my tools and sharpening stone, making the blades

all shimmer enough to skim the hair from my arm.

Then, after cleaning each with a rag dipped in

some watered-down bleach, I move around the tree's

sprawling limbs, the ruddy young growth all wagging

at the sun, all shivering with the breezes

muscling through. And with my loppers and snips I

look up into the behemoth tree and begin clipping,

first the wisps of growth and pencil thick sprouts, before hauling

myself into the tree, wedging my boot in the sturdy crotch and clinging

to a fat branch to keep thinning: overlapping

limbs or those with some hint of disease; those grown haywire

or deranged twisting toward the light; and those from which

last year grew maybe half a bushel of fruit, limbs

wrist thick with bark whorled and cleft by age,

but whose tight angle might snap this year

and wreck the tree, and require a saw to remove, which I do,

watching the last branch tumble into the pile of clippings below.

I do this again and again, crawling through the branches

as though through a beloved's ribs. Friends, if you haven't guessed,

every time I do this a little bit I mourn,

leaning the pruner's steel flush against the flesh,

or working back and forth the saw's grin and feeling

the smooth wood tumble or twirl into the little tomb which, after

the cutting is done, is about my size—is about the size,

give or take, of everyone I've ever loved. This is how, every spring,

I promise the fruit will swell with sugar: by bringing in the air and light—

until, like the old-timers say, the tree is open enough

for a bird to fly through. Which, in fact, they do—two cardinals

flirting; a blue jay flashing its pompadour; one of those little greyish birds

I can't remember the name of, landing on the furthest limbs

where it does nothing special besides maybe dump its teeny

chamber pot while whistling this very ditty:

half dirge, half disco, some giggly trill

loop-de-looping from its tiny beak,

while its ruffled, musty body sways on the tree's furthest finger,

resting exactly where I put it,

singing just as I asked it to,

which, from up here, where the newly open view is good, I can see

is what I was pointing to, what I was saying quietly to Myself,

in the parking lot of the KFC in Levittown, Pennsylvania,

as Myself shivered, and looked up, trying to see,

trying to hear.

Ending the Estrangement

from my mother's sadness, which was,
to me, unbearable, until,
it felt to me
not like what I thought it felt like
to her, and so felt inside myself—like death,
like dying, which I would almost
have rather done, though adding to her sadness
would rather die than do—
but, by sitting still, like what, in fact, it was—
a form of gratitude
which when last it came
drifted like a meadow lit by torches
of cardinal flower, one of whose crimson blooms,
when a hummingbird hovered nearby,
I slipped into my mouth
thereby coaxing it
to scrawl on my tongue
its heart's frenzy, its fleet
nectar-questing song,
with whom, with you, dear mother,
I now sing along.

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