The first thing I noticed about Ross Gay was his smile. Last Friday, he walked into the Muelder Room between Monica Berlin and Adrian Matejka, towering over them both and sporting an unapologetic grin. Gay’s cheer was not dampened by a screeching microphone, which he playfully referred to as a “gust of wind.”
When I took Beginning Poetry with Berlin, she asked us all to read Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude.” Listening to Gay read the poem aloud, I understood the difference between hearing the words and seeing them on the page. “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” is a conversation between the poet and reader. Gay reads animatedly, warbling at certain points, pointing offstage and laughing freely.
Gay described gratitude as a connective force. Gratitude for things big and small, like rain after a drought, binds us to one another and, ultimately, the Earth. It is the idea that we belong to each other as human beings, that “we are not alien to one another.” In a world riddled with conflict, where it is easy to feel estranged, Gay’s words are comforting.
Matejka was similarly tongue-in-cheek. He prefaced his first poem with the stipulation, “I can’t write love poems, so I’m writing a book of them.” The poems are reflective or, as Matejka puts it, “more about what happens on the other side of love.” A cautionary piece dedicated to his daughter and her first crush is light and playful as he invites the audience to laugh with him.
Matejka also read from his book “Map to the Stars”, which focuses on his childhood in Indiana. He described the pain of reaching into the past to mine material for poems like “Outta Here Blacks.” The piece recounts how Matejka’s white mother moved her Black children from a working class neighborhood to the suburbs. The poet draws on memories of hunger and poverty in a work that is political without losing sight of the individual.
While “Map to the Stars” is not autobiographical in a strict sense, Matejka confessed that he was afraid to show it to his mother. When his mother did read the book, she said, “I’m glad you remember it this way.” A shadow passes over Matejka’s face as he recalls his mother’s gratitude that he did not recall “how bad it really was.” The love at the center of this old wound is incredibly moving.
It can seem like the world is falling to pieces and, in many ways, it is. The icecaps are melting and authoritarianism is on the rise. Poetry lets us to feel healed in some way. I take solace in the miniscule moments that Gay and Matejka capture in visceral, lush language.
Upcoming Caxton Club events:
Roya Biggie: April 12 at 4 p.m. in the Alumni Room, Old Main
Anika Fajardo: May 23 at 4 p.m. in the Alumni Room, Old Main