The Book of Delights
By Ross Gay
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 288 pp. $23.95.
Reviewed by John Timpane
Let’s be delighted. Let’s go out and find things that delight us. And let’s ask Ross Gay along — he’s an expert.
Gay, alumnus of Lafayette College and Temple University, and now among our most delightful poets, regales us with The Book of Delights, brief essays on things like scything (as in using a scythe), hummingbirds, praying mantises, blackness and its languages and physicalities, swearing, and watching everybody lick their coffee cups to clean off that little dribble left by every sip. (Come on, you do it, too, you know you do … and Gay is right, it’s a sweet, vulnerable delight.)
His rules: “[W]rite a delight every day for a year; begin and end on my birthday, August 1; draft them quickly; and write them by hand. The rules made it a discipline for me. A practice. Spend time thinking and writing about delight every day.” Thus he teaches us. Go and do likewise.
This is Gay’s register, his tenor, his way of writing and therefore (I think) being. (Full disclosure: He took an independent study class with me when I was a lecturer at Lafayette College.) His poetry, as in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award) may be light or dark, ebullient or desperate, but his eye naturally sees wonders that make him happy and grateful.
So you read him with a smile that makes your face tired because it stays for hours, especially here, where the delights — infinity scarves, sloth, porta-potties (they can delight, no doubt about it), the phrase not fuh nuttin'’, spoken Philly-wise – pile up.
Turn directly to essay number 80, “Tomato on Board,” in which Gay decides that, having been given a little tomato plant he must take on an airplane, “I decided I better just carry it out in the open. And the shower of love began. ... [O]ne of the workers said, ‘Nice tomato,’ which I don’t think was a come on. And the flight attendant asked about the tomato at least five times, not an exaggeration, every time calling it ‘my tomato’ — 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?"
Though much is funny, much sweet, Gay deals in depth. I direct you to “‘Joy Is Such a Human Madness’: The Duff Between Us,” where he, gently, kindly, drills down to a truth about joy being
the underground union between us, which is, among other things, the great fact of our life and the lives of everyone and thing we love going away. If we sink a spoon into that fact … we will find it teeming. It will look like all the books ever written. It will look like all the nerves in a body. We might call it sorrow, but we might call it a union, one that, once we notice it, once we bring it into the light, might become flower and food. Might be joy.
God, yes. Gay leads us from mortality into light-shot union.