Bringing the Shovel Down

nolead begins By Ross Gay

University of Pittsburgh Press. 80 pp. $14.95.

nolead ends nolead begins


Reviewed by Thomas Devaney


Ross Gay's second poetry collection,

Bringing the Shovel Down

, is an artfully honest book. Many of the poems are direct meditations on violence, compassion, and questions of conscience.

Gay, now an assistant professor of English at Indiana University, grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia and earned his Ph.D. in American literature at Temple University. It is revealing that his book offers two versions of the title poem, setting up conflicting ideals that run throughout the collection. In the first poem, a dog is killed; in the second, the poet bonds with the animal and spares its life.

"Learning to Speak" displays Gay's tendency to treat the intersections between life and death both as daily occurrences and as poignant occasions of pathos:

you know we are at every turn - laundromat, subway,

courtroom, ball game - shoulder to shoulder

face to face with someone who didn't

shoot the dog or burn the kid,

who didn't fist his rage across someone's face -

at every turn we are in the midst of these small

lanterns lighting a road away

Gay's poems are "small lanterns" of "lighting" and more.

Gay's prose poems are impressive. According to Charles Simic, the prose poem "is the result of two contradictory impulses, prose and poetry, and therefore cannot exist, but it does." Simic's formulation is useful in engaging the complicated currents that run through Gay's work. Eight prose poems are titled "The Syndromes." As the title indicates, all are written in the nomenclature of doctors and diagnosis, medical definition. Some include: Cartographer's Syndrome, Undertaker's Syndrome, and one is called "Raining or Washing." Perhaps the most revealing of the series is "The Syndromes: Doubling":

. . . the layered and concurrent seeing of two discrete versions of a given object or person: the man's briefcase is also an intricately woven shawl of bones; the sleeping child's face is also crawling with ants; a flagpole is also a gallows. In the most acute presentation, one's hands are also one's hands.

Through direct engagement of contradictory impulses he examines culture, himself, and even his own poetic materials. Of course it's satisfying how familiar objects such as a man's briefcase or a flagpole can give way to the unexpected, but Gay does not stop there.

In a book full of doubling, perhaps it's understandable that W.E.B. Du Bois should play a role, In his landmark book The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois defines the "double consciousness" of the African American: "One ever feels his two-ness, - an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings."

It's tricky waters to over-read Du Bois in Gay's poems. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the poems point to W.E.B. Du Bois rather than being purely Du Boisian (if there is anything pure about what Du Bois is writing about).

Gay can turn a phrase. But in his attempts to expand Du Bois' definition of alienation as seeing one's self through "the eyes of others," his words become less nuanced. A poem given a title like "Some Instruction on Black Masculinity Offered to My Black Friend by the White Woman He Briefly Dated: A Monologue" too easily belies its own purpose. This is textbook Du Bois, who in fact makes an appearance in the poem. In the voice of a white woman, Gay writes:

What does your Hegel say about funk? Your Du Bois (pronounced Du BWAH)? See, I only date hood. My last man? He never met his father. Four women, six kids. Three of whom are named after luxury cars. Child support? Do you know anything about your people?

At Gay's best, the "two-ness" in the poems remains matter-of-fact. To his great credit, the understated conviction of the poems generates new meanings and possibilities without avoiding or denying their contradictions.

Thomas Devaney is the author of "A Series of Small Boxes." He is a visiting assistant professor at Haverford College and editor of the e-journal ONandOnScreen, which features poems and videos.