Issue 49 — This is IT
The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay
The book under consideration this week uses that address in at least one place: “Good Reader.” I like it.
I’m back from two weeks on the road, and here with a book that is important to me. You heard about Ross Gay from others in my 2021 holiday gift guides. In view of the last horrible month or so in the world, I would like to share with you some thoughts on The Book of Delights. If you would like to know more about Ross Gay after reading this week’s issue, please check out David Naimon’s beautiful interview with Gay on Between The Covers, David’s podcast for Tin House.
One quick housekeeping note. Substack has launched an iOS app that might be of interest if you read multiple Substack newsletters. An Android version is in the works.
The Book of Delights
Algonquin Books, 2019
It sits on the counter in my pantry, leaned against the wall. Sometime, somewhere, I bought a black-and-white photograph of a partially torn-down restaurant, an image captured sometime, somewhere, likely in the American South. Painted on what remains of the facade, in large and variegated letters, are the following announcements:
DINNER is READY
This is IT
Over the thirty-odd years that I have owned this photo, it has never not prompted joy as I’ve passed by it, or stopped to choose soup bowls from the cupboard above. In the image, boards are heaped up on the ground at every angle, and you can see through two layers of empty windows to the woods out back. It’s a scene of destruction, of ruin. Yet in all its absurdity amid the wreckage, there is a found poem. To me these words are raucous, defiant, loving, and proud. I read them as a witnessing, a proverb of gratitude, and a kind of promise to the future. I glimpse them as I carry plates of my husband’s delicious cooking to the table. DINNER is READY. When everything is terrible, we have this. This is IT. And it is so much more than enough.
Reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights has made me think of the way that particular photograph acts on me, tutors me. Gay is the author of four books of poetry, most recently the critically acclaimed Be Holding, a love song to basketball legend Julius Erving. Gay has also written chapbooks, including the epistolary sequence of gardening poems Lace and Pyrite (with Aimee Nezhukumatathil; see Frugal Chariot Issue 6). Gay teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington, and he is a founding director of the Bloomington Community Orchard. The bio on his website speaks to his gifts for cadence and improvisation:
Ross Gay is interested in joy.
Ross Gay wants to understand joy.
Ross Gay is curious about joy.
Ross Gay studies joy.
Something like that.
The Book of Delights emerged from a practice that Gay developed: writing a tiny essay every day for a year, beginning on his birthday, about something that delighted him. In his introduction, he notes that the themes of the essays closely reflect his activities and concerns.
I traveled quite a bit this year. I often write in cafés. My mother is often on my mind. Racism is often on my mind. Kindness is often on my mind. Politics. Pop music. Books. Dreams. Public space. My garden is often on my mind.
After committing to this practice, Gay noticed that he had “. . . a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”
There are as many kinds of joy in reading these essays as there are condiments in my refrigerator. Yet chief among them (possibly my squeeze bottle of wasabi sauce) is the joy of watching Gay’s mind make fantastic leaps of association. From the winter solstice to his lavender infinity scarf to his relationship to masculinity; from the kinds of carrots in his garden to the ideas of kindness and kin. He pauses between leaps to notice things. You can almost see him bending his tall frame to the earth. He notices that some carrots “almost become two carrots, carrot legs in need of some petite pantaloons.”
Another pair of grand jetés takes him from Rilke’s terrible angels to Zadie Smith’s idea of being “in joy” to an aspiring teacher who asked the question, “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” These lead Gay to his own set of questions:
“Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is and—and if we join them—your wild to mine and—what's that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I'm saying.
I'm saying: what if that is joy?
A writer who can find this much joy on airplanes is a writer to keep near at hand, perhaps even in your carry-on. A flight attendant calls him baby. (“I started to feel like I was maybe her special baby.”). He takes fig tree cuttings on a plane. (“I’m carrying joy in my bag.”) He visualizes sacred forces ensuring the plane a safe journey. A baby toddles bravely down the aisle, “upon which the choir of babbling would commence, everyone reaching toward the munchkin.” When he brings a tomato plant on a plane, a flight attendant becomes emotionally involved and checks in frequently.
Where’s my tomato? How’s my tomato? You didn’t lose my tomato did you? She even directed me to an open seat in the exit row: Why don’t you guys go sit there and stretch out? I gathered my things and set the li’l guy in the window seat so she could look out.
I really can’t think what else to say about The Book of Delights. Maybe “Satisfaction or Your Money Back!” It reminds me of the review that Justin Taylor wrote about Joy Williams’ latest novel Harrow. “I don’t want to evaluate this book. I want to place it in the center of a salt ring and light candles around it.”
Last week I ran a long loop in Manhattan. As I plodded north on the Hudson River Greenway in spring sunshine, I was stopped short at the sight of a mural painted along the length of an old industrial building on a pier. I WANT TO THANK YOU. This is IT.
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Other Voices, Other Forms
Last week I had the delight of hearing music in a concert hall for the first time in two years: a recital by the Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique. Here she sings “Rejoice Greatly” by G. F. Handel, with the Chineke! Orchestra.
Poem of the Week
The Morgan Library in New York is presenting a gem of an exhibition about Gwendolyn Brooks. Look at this beautiful children’s book!
Here is a Ross Gay’s poem “Sorrow Is Not My Name” via The Poetry Foundation.
Sorrow Is Not My Name
—after Gwendolyn Brooks
No matter the pull toward brink. No
matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.
There is a time for everything. Look,
just this morning a vulture
nodded his red, grizzled head at me,
and I looked at him, admiring
the sickle of his beak.
Then the wind kicked up, and,
after arranging that good suit of feathers
he up and took off.
Just like that. And to boot,
there are, on this planet alone, something like two
million naturally occurring sweet things,
some with names so generous as to kick
the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,
stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks
at the market. Think of that. The long night,
the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me
on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.
But look; my niece is running through a field
calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel
and at the end of my block is a basketball court.
I remember. My color's green. I'm spring.
—for Walter Aikens
For Your Reading Radar
Veteran Atlanta-based journalist Dan Chapman set out to follow John Muir’s routes through the American South, and the result is his new book, A Road Running Southward. His publisher says the volume is “part travelogue, part environmental cri de coeur, and paints a picture of a South under siege.”
For Your Calendar
Last month at the AWP conference, I had the chance to hear a presentation by Irish writer Kerri Ní Dochartaigh, author of the haunting memoir The Thin Places, her story of growing up in Ireland during The Troubles. It is a very special book for the ways in which it weaves together her family’s sense of place and experiences of the natural world with the violent times in which they lived. Point Reyes Books will be hosting Dochartaigh in conversation with Catherine Raven on Friday, April 15th at 11 A.M. Pacific Time. Register here.
Bookstore of the Week
Morgenstern Books is the largest independent bookstore in Indiana, with more than 50,000 volumes in stock. At one point the store was driven out of business thanks to competition from the big book chains. But it has recently reopened under the ownership of Rick Morgenstern and Todd and Samantha Eads. They were able to track down the couple who’d bought the old store’s neon OPEN sign, and they purchased it back.
Over the next three weeks I’ll be submitting mini-posts, as I am planning to run/shuffle a long road race, take a trip with my daughter, and write two essays that I’m hoping (gulp) to pitch to other publications. Thank you for your kind support. xo Nicie