December 18, 2020KR Reviews

Defying Gravity: On Be Holding by Ross Gay

Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020. 88 pages. $17.00.

Note: After this book review was assigned and completed, Ross Gay joined the Kenyon Review as an Editor at Large.

Ross Gay’s book-length poem Be Holding, like its focal subject—the legendary shot in the 1980 NBA finals by Julius Erving, aka “Dr. J”—is a gravity-defying feat. In turning an instance of athletic prowess and grace into an expansive metaphoric vision, Gay pulls off a syntactical tour de force and—except for a a halting mid-poem intake of breath—delivers most of the poem as one long-sustained sentence. While his two-line stanzas fall fluidly down the page, the poem’s tone is buoyant, refusing closure, even omitting a final period at poem’s end. In a flashback Gay imagines his subject as a youth in Long Island:

what I’m telling you
about Erving’s soaring

which is less is astronauticality,
and more the cast of the young

Erving’s eyes, which are looking, somehow,
far past the metal backboards

or the rim he would, imminently,
rock the rust from, looking far

past the chain link
wrapping the courts and past the high-rise

apartments and past the elevator tracks
of the Metro North he rode to get here

From iterative descriptions of the play’s YouTube video, Gay moves to wide-ranging meditations on everything from the Middle Passage and modern surveillance to music, photography, and his own personal and familial history. The poet’s ability to keep these lyric flights in the air while maintaining narrative coherence is a wonder in itself. Beyond the casual locutions of familiar second person address, Gay sustains a sense of intimate, authentic connection with readers over a long poem by periodically breaking the plane of artifice, grounding “this poem” in self-conscious references. It is a pleasure to take this unpredictable journey with the author of Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and The Book of Delights, whose signature sensibility is so persuasively pitched toward praise of the living things of this world.

In the time of Black Lives Matter, the affective quality of Gay’s affirmations seems harder won and thus more intense and precious for the winning. Like jazz, another great American invention, basketball has been a special site of Black cultural expression, but accomplishments of Black players have often been undervalued as a mere by-product of innate physical talent. Among its other attributes, Be Holding puts this prejudice to rest by presenting Dr. J’s artful feat as emblematic of volitional inspiration and skillful mastery:

Erving simply decided in the air

to knock on other doors
by soaring more

—have you ever decided anything
In the air?—

Less direct than the satiric assaults of, say, Amiri Baraka, Gay’s critique of the culture’s pervasive racism is no less affective for its lighter personalized touch, as when he recalls how kids of his kind were deprived of their nurturing basketball playground by the othering “white gaze”:

. . . a court that would be in time
shut down in the most heinous

of ways—removing the rims—
the backboards lonely as gravestones—

because of complaints to the city
from the condo owners

across the street
who did not want to hear god forbid

all the Negro gathering
and celebration and care and delight

every goddam weekend morning—
all that

frolic and tumult,
all that flight,

(why can’t they just go
someplace else?)

Amplifying the social and cultural significance of its subject, Gay blows up Dr. J’s audacious leap to mythical proportions, evoking comparisons to captured Africans during the Middle Passage: how a desperate resistance to their dehumanization gave birth to the story of the “flying Igbo,” whose collective self-destruction is re-imagined as a moment of achieved liberation and transcendence,

their arms outstretched as if treading water
their hands and feet making small circles,

their chains dangling and slicing rusty wakes
into the air until one by one

they shake loose and tumble from their ankles and wrists
erasing through the sky and into the sea

like names disappearing from a ledger,
hovering there like a school

looking down at us,
watching

as Doc continues his flight
over the baseline

Such is a heavy freight for one basketball play to carry, but the apparent incongruity between subject matter and thematic ambition is part of the poem’s delightful audacity. The camera’s capturing of the empirical event and Gay’s slow-motion meditation on its meaning allows viewers and readers to witness or “be hold” it again and again as if on an endless replay loop: the play’s image of a joyful creative freedom becomes almost commensurate with the history of black pain that gave it rise and now shadows it. That history, captured in reference to other iconic photographs like the falling mother and child in Fire Escape Collapse, leads Gay to interrogate our paradoxical desire to “witness the unwitnessable,” and the ethical implications of photographers—or poets—who capture such:

For he was simply

doing his job
adding his small work,

his touch
to the museum

of black pain
thrown overboard

For the insurance
and of course now that I am breathing

I wonder if, no,
I wonder how,

I too am a docent
In the museum of black pain

This poem struggles mightily against validating culture as a collection of fixed artifacts, and against any art that reifies or commodifies its human subjects (the poem only condemns the photographer who later posed Tiare Jones looking at the image of herself as a forever falling baby). Be Holding offers a dynamic imaginative counterpoint to a “looking” that “captures,” limits or essentially objectifies. Gay’s active re-imagining of the Dr. J video, like his interpretation of the book’s cover photograph—a WPA depression-era picture of a grandmother and young grandson in aviator helmet and goggles—models a different kind of looking:

That inside me always is a lifting off
In the direction of something else,

toward you, I really mean to say,
waiting to happen,

which is among the ways of saying
this looking makes me breathe,

this looking holds
my breathing

In moving passages about his own loving but economically hard-pressed upbringing in a biracial family, Gay poses the living breath of memory against the dispiriting “museum of pain.” More broadly, like those photographic subjects who seem to look back and beyond the lookers who threaten to fix them for their own purposes, readers are invited to participate in a more humanizing communal vision. No less than the poet, and along with Dr. J, getting to his feet again after his flight from fallenness, we can experience a “beholding” both generous and reciprocal:

reaching toward
each other, now,

 

we breathe