Wakes of Joy: On Ross Gay’s “The Book of Delights”
Jun 10 ● BY Emily Ellison
Delight. The word springs off itself, the pitch of the second syllable lifting into the sky of the mouth. A bounding of sorts, a soft frolic through sudden illumination. As Ross Gay escorts you through his latest literary garden, The Book of Delights, your face may crack open, pulled apart like an egg’s two ends. You may long to lean into an unfamiliar body and call it reunion.
The poet Fanny Howe writes, “The whirling that is central to bewilderment is the natural way for the lyric poet.” Bewilderment as enchantment, sight renewed of its innocence and dizzy with all the exuberant facets of our aliveness—this is how one might imagine Gay, our tour guide of gratitude. He celebrates the notion that “people are delighted by such goofy, ridiculous things, which reminds [him] of a fairly common childlike-ness, which encourages softheartedness.” The essays in The Book of Delights braid this childlike awe with mature commentary, rendering even commonalities such as pawn shops and animal scat as opportunities to extol our connections and reevaluate what we elevate and denigrate.
The innocence afforded by bewilderment combats “the fact that innocence is an impossible state for black people in America who are, by virtue of this country’s fundamental beliefs, always presumed guilty,” which Gay addresses in “The Negreeting.” Continuing this topic in “Still Processing,” he writes about the nation’s systematic effort to conflate blackness and suffering—an effort he confronts through the very nature of his “book of black delight.” As Gay gives himself over to all the simple wonders fragrantly bursting, sometimes literally, under his nose, he joins—and conflates himself inextricably—with joy, evincing the capacity of the human spirit to delight despite all oppressive presumptions.
The Book of Delights maps a year of miracles. His endeavor to compose daily handwritten essays from one birthday to the next stems from “feeling delighted and compelled to both wonder about and share that delight.” And it seems that, in Gay’s horticultural hands, delight proliferates. Often his enthusiastic diligence to account for and investigate each divergent delight gives the reader the sensation of looking through a kaleidoscope and seeing myriad multi-dimensionalities apparent to us if we let ourselves muse upon them, if we pay attention.
In this way, Gay broadens the definition of occasional poetry, or poetry written to commemorate a single event or anniversary. In his year of daily devotionals to delight, Gay focuses on “temporal allegiance,” which he describes in “Stacking Delights” as “the utility, the need, of [his] own essayettes to emerge from such dailiness, and in that way to be a practice of witnessing one’s delight, of being in and with one’s delight, daily, which actually requires vigilance. It also requires faith that delight will be with you daily, that you needn’t hoard it. No scarcity of delight.” In the traditional mode, occasional poetry often deflects sincerity due to its performative construction. Gay’s essays, though, capture the effect of communal celebration while retaining their sense of intimacy—primarily in the way his sentences, through their corrections and digressions, enact thinking on the page. These essays impart humility, that Gay might invite us along as he attempts to figure it out for himself.
Gay declares every day an occasion worth commemorating, similar to how the sun, when rising, also beams. Delight, he writes in “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” “suggests both ‘of light’ and ‘without light.’ And both of them concurrently is what I’m talking about. What I think I’m talking about. Being of and without at once. Or: joy.” Wakes of joy.
“Perhaps delight is like after the great cosmic finger has pointed at something, and that something (which in all likelihood was already there, which is why I’ve enlisted a cosmic finger rather than a human one) appears,” Gay proposes in “Found Things.” Pointing, implicitly or explicitly, depicts our impulse to share with one another, to ensure that our discovery receives its due audience. To Gay, pointing is “a miracle of human cognition…to know there is an invisible line between the index finger and that barely discernible trio of fruit swaying way up in the canopy.” Simply, the phenomenon illustrates how instinctively we wish to partake in each other’s passions. In this universe of delight, we might imagine ourselves being taken by Gay, our cosmic creator, through a verdant labyrinth, led by one hand as he points with the other.
For Gay, delight grows by sharing it, through trimming its leaves and replanting kindnesses like small yet brilliant tomato plants. Each essay is an empathic gesticulation. He is enchanted by “the utterly forgettable magic of the carrot” (“Pulling Carrots”) and “the delirium incited by lily blooms” (“The Jenky”), which to him constitute “a whole wild and perfectly orchestrated symphony of pollination and predation” (“Praying Mantis”). The pleasure of abundance informs each sentence as it twists to include more; his sentences meander, taking their time, exploring the depths of each passing nook, turning soil, accumulating trinkets. In “Writing by Hand,” he celebrates “the experience of writing, which is the production of a good deal of florid detritus, flotsam and jetsam, all those words that mean what you have written and cannot disappear…which is the weird path toward what you have come to know.” And it is a delight that Gay invites us along these “weird paths,” reveling in the fact that detritus, by its nature, also encourages growth.
The Book of Delights is ecstatic and meditative, “praising of the mysterious and tender touchings we are so often in the midst of” (“Infinity”). Above all, Gay delights in the small generosities we extend toward one another: tokens of acknowledgement and solidarity, gems of disregard for the myth of strangeness between us, affections “making the social contract of mostly not touching each other irrelevant.” Delight in the surprise of a caress. What can we celebrate by holding? To read Gay is to feel adored by Gay. He encourages our wildest behaviors, our kindest behaviors, and sees the dancing in all we do. His sentiments wind, wild as vines or hands in love, around the human body, a maypole celebrated at every angle. Marvelous how we move, and move each other.
Loveliest of all is Gay’s compassionate command of delight—instructions in what to carry, what to exalt, and what to bury. For hands gripping weapons, substitute flowers; esteem all your babies, all your mothers; wield shovels to plant promises, those “little dreamers of coming back into bloom” (“Transplanting”). Delight is an exercise in cultivation. We are building these muscles in his garden of joy.
And so, please delight in these first seeds:
Gay invites us to delight in enough, which seen through grateful eyes is everything—a symphony of lifesong, which is also deathsong, which is lifesong, which is to say that the voice appearing and disappearing may remind us of our vibrant presence. He wants us to delight in the gentle-fleshed animal of desire living in our fingertips, in our adornment, in our finally revealed tenderheartedness. And finally, Gay wants us to delight that delight itself originates in the delighted, in the body, in “the fact of our bodies’ ubiquitous porosities, how so often, and mostly unbeknownst, our bodies are the bodies of others” (“Incorporation”). So delight in your polyphonous self, which is the miracle of surviving, which is always a dance. Delight that there is still belief in our common decency, in work which puts us on our hands and knees, a delight in bees and other ways to kiss. Delight, above all, in kindness, in reuniting kindness with kinship, and in kin.