Ross Gay is best known for The Book of Delights (2019) and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (2015), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Because of this, it is easy to think of him as a poet of levity. Whether a fig tree or a mulberry, hummingbirds or bumblebees, a good coffee or a gratuitous nap, Gay touches the world with uncanny warmth and leaves us cheering for life’s simplest joys. This alone renders him a unique and welcome voice in a literary world that rarely doles out praise for works about happiness.
Gay’s work is not only celebratory. It is also an exegesis on loss, grief, prejudice, shame, and the improbability of grace in our lives—especially in Black lives.
But, of course, Gay’s work is not quaint or merely celebratory. It is also an exegesis on loss, grief, prejudice, shame, and the improbability of grace in our lives—especially in Black lives. On this count, Be Holding is arguably his most accomplished work. A book-length poem, Be Holding takes a boisterous event—Julius “Dr. J” Erving’s legendary reverse layup in the 1980 NBA Finals—and metamorphosizes it into a solemn query on ethics, or, more exactly, the ethics of witnessing. And this is not to be confused with looking, for Gay cautions us away from spectacle, asking us to partake in something more fully embodied: to witness, that is, not just with our eyes, but also with our lungs, our hands, and our lips.
Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the invitation to “Breathe” becomes one of the poem’s refrains, an invitation that resonates with the Movement for Black Lives’ slogan “I Can’t Breathe.” For we are not in fact in 1980, but in the era of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and so many other Black men who’ve died at the hands (or knees) of white police officers. And so Be Holding is an inquiry on witnessing “the unwitnessable” and those vicarious and involuntary ways in which we gasp at the sight of heinous acts (let alone contemptible verdicts): “We’re always holding our breath. / Let’s stop and breathe, / you and me.”
But let’s not forget, Gay is saying that we also gasp at the sight of the sublime, moments such as Dr. J’s layup. What about it is sublime? The spontaneity of it. The elegance of it. The improbability of it. In other words, against the probability of seeing yet another Black man profiled, shot, or incarcerated, there stands (or, rather, soars) Erving, defying odds and gravity itself—at least for a moment. Rather than witness the emphatic or visceral dunk, Gay has us witness finesse and ingenuity. We witness, thereby, a Black man embody not brute stereotypes or terror, but sheer improvisational grace. The lane closed off, forced out of bounds, the backboard a barricade and defenders at the ready, Dr. J’s unlikely score becomes an allegory for outwitting and out-beautifying systemic racism: “the daily evasion of which is / . . . / a version of genius.”
And Gay can’t get enough of it. While we may infer that the poem took years to craft, it is written as if it were a stream of consciousness during sleepless a.m. hours, with Gay (or, at least, the narrator) watching the highlight reel over and over again. But remember: he’s not watching so much as he is witnessing, trying to make sense of why this seemingly trivial act (it’s just a layup! it’s only two points!) has become so iconic. And the answer, tentatively, is that Dr. J defied the odds—all odds. Here he soars, reaching for and embodying something akin to the holy, and this done by one of the many sons (we’ll soon get to the daughters) of the Middle Passage. Hence, the poem’s other haunting refrain: “thrown overboard / for the insurance.” This interjection refers literally to a historical case, the 1781 Zong massacre, in which the crew of a slave ship, having run out of drinking water, threw their human cargo overboard for the insurance payoff (also poetically interrogated in M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2008 Zong!). But in the context of Gay’s Be Holding, the interjection asks what it means more broadly to be rendered expendable “loot,” which is to say: property, with which owners (or the state) can do as they please.
As such, Gay’s poetically-induced insomnia and obsession with Dr. J’s layup becomes an inquiry on falling, so to speak, and our responsiveness to it. He thus turns to other images, particularly a photograph of a Black woman and child falling from a fire escape and the fact that a white photographer won a Pulitzer for “shooting” the unnamed victims. Seeing it on display in an art gallery, Gay ponders the perversity of rendering Black death a spectacle for us to impotently (or charitably) witness: “the museum / of black pain, / thrown overboard / for the insurance.” But the real story to be told here is that the girl, Tiare Jones, survived the fall—as did another of Gay’s iconic subjects, the Vietnamese “Napalm girl,” whose real name is Phan Thị Kim Phúc. But Tiare’s survival came at a cost, namely the life of her godmother, Diana Bryant, who sacrificed her body to catch and cushion Tiare’s fall. This, Bryant’s gift or grace, is what Gay wants us to note and remember. Not the horrific images, which are tellingly absent (except in words) in the book.
Be Holding is an inquiry into how we involuntarily gasp at both heinous acts and at the sight of the sublime.
What we experience throughout the book are, accordingly, instances of Black (as well as white and brown) dignity and love amidst disgrace. We see a sharecropper Black grandmother and her watchful eye, knowing her beloved grandsons could be liable to suffer “anything, anything,” as “she knows . . . / more than anyone.” But we also see two (unnamed) Black women, in a photograph titled Welcome Home, overjoyed, in close proximity, and welcoming the camera’s gaze: “she is being moved / by the looking / toward the looking.” And then there’s Gay’s white mother, holding her brown sons in a grocery store circa 1970, and her retort to a white woman’s zoological gaze: “Yes they’re mine / and I have the stretch marks to prove it,” which was to say, with grace, “what the fuck are you / looking at.” And his Black father, holding his boys by the hands as they cross the street or as they wade in the ocean’s waters, not letting go of each other—not letting them be “thrown overboard / for the insurance.”
All of which brings us back to Dr. J’s layup. Its beauty rests not only in its improvisational genius but also in its tenderness, in the way Erving holds the ball, “palms” it in one hand, lets it “kiss” the backboard and fall gently into the hoop. This majestic and unexpected layup becomes, in the end, Gay’s allegory for how we are beholden to beauty and to one another, as we exuberantly cheer, hold each other, and give thanks for graces given—whether, as Gay’s oeuvre teaches us, by strangers or kin, the living or the no longer alive, or by the blossoms of a fruit orchard.