Not so very long ago—five years perhaps—I opened the pages of a book and began to read a poem that entirely reconfigured my notions of what a poem can do. The poem was Ross Gay’s “Bringing the Shovel Down.” And, as is so often the case with world-transforming revelations, the encounter also hit me with the force of profoundest remembering: Here was an instance, a glorious, exfoliating instance, of all I had always hoped and believed about the ways and wherewithal of art. “Because I love you,” begins this poem, “and beneath the uncountable stars / I have become the delicate piston threading itself through your chest, // I want to tell you a story I shouldn’t but will…”
Because I love you. The stakes are high, at once both intimate and mysterious: Who is this “you”? Who is speaking to the “you”? What has either of them to do with me? Everything, says the poem, as it moves through the vastness of the starry sky to the inwardness of the pulse in the breast with the hook that reels me in: a story. And, best of all, a forbidden story, which makes me coconspirator in something that shouldn’t, for reasons yet to be revealed, be told.
“I want to tell you a story I shouldn’t but will, and in the meantime neglect, Love…” There it is again—that liberty taken, the intimate address, and this time it is not merely a thing the speaker claims to do or feel—love—but a thing—Love—she or he has become, the one whom the poet addresses, who is and is not me.
and in the meantime neglect,
the discordant melody spilling from
my ears but attend,
instead, to this tale, for a river burns
inside my mouth
and it wants both purgation and to
eternally sip your thousand drippings;
Ears do not spill melodies, they are instruments of apprehension. Mouths do not run with rivers. Rivers do not burn. Disciplined to the parameters of a consistent and obedient conceit, drippings may constitute the source of a river, but they may also, disturbingly, gather in a roasting pan. And there is nothing obedient or well-behaved about this cascading imagery. Enthralling, synesthetic, these extravagant sensory promptings conjure a speaker who is not entirely in control and an auditor—the you, who is me—whose boundaries are not intact. The one who speaks and the one who listens interanimate. The story injects itself into the very veins: “and in the story is a dog and unnamed it leads to less heartbreak, / so name him Max, and in the story…” And there we have it, there with the speed of a by-the-way, we are warned. The story is toxic and aimed at the heart.
I know. Nothing can so thoroughly kill a poem as this laborious blow-by-blow and so, in deference to the poem and its extraordinary power, I will endeavor to speak more broadly. (The poem, not mutilated by commentary, may be found after this essay.) But oh I want to praise its every part, as Petrarch praised the lips and eyes and hair of Laura. Because the poem in all its turnings is at once a work of enchantment and a veritable handbook of rhetorical technique. From the ominous title through every insinuating reiteration of the intimate address, the promised story contaminates the air with dread. And because we love to be frightened, we are responsible for the story: The poem is a moral entangling.
As a sick dog with its smell of piss infects the air, as malicious boys infect the mind of one who is weaker, as you and I, Love, your leg between mine, begin to lose our separate contours, so the story accumulates momentum and begins to colonize everything in its path. I cannot help but hear in those terms of endearment—Love, Love, Darling, Love—the echoes of Rudyard Kipling: “In the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale…” The echo is not, I think, accidental. In Kipling’s Just So Stories, storytelling at its most elemental (“Once upon a time”) mingles with the teasing authority of intimate address. The one who speaks is one who knows, the one who listens is a child, and the scene is one of instruction: “How the Whale Got His Throat,” “How the Camel Got His Hump.” The story (in the shadow of bedtime?) is one of origins, which in “Bringing the Shovel Down” becomes the origin of evil.
The individual turnings of this poem are marvelous to me. Its essence would seem to be momentum, narration moving relentlessly, heart-chillingly forward in a single rolling sentence. Yet in the course of this momentum it also builds a conspicuous formal coherence, at once aesthetically pleasurable and morally alarming. In the alternating registers of diction, from lofty to homely and back again; in the echoing images of what ought to be reassuring—lovers in bed, their legs intertwined; brother and brother in bed, a stuffed animal between them; father and mother in bed, her body bent toward his—the story enlarges and enlarges its embrace, until the darkness is all-encompassing. We are afforded no reprieve or moral insulation. “[Y]ou know by now” where this is going, says the speaker, and we keep reading anyway. The story that constitutes the subject of the poem becomes the story the poem itself enacts: neighborhood kids “spin a yarn … like I’m singing to you.” They do it for the hell of it; they do it because they can; they do it because someone is willing to listen and power, like fear, is a kind of drug. And the yarn they spin (marvelous poet: no idiom is beneath him) is as venerable as the one that is spun by fate.
A lesser poet might end with the death of the dog: helplessness done in by innocence. But Gay deepens our sense of inextricability by turning and turning his tale. In a false catharsis that, horribly, works as well as the true, the credulous child finds peace again; dawn brings him back to sweet berries; the blood on his arm is merely the price of the sweetness. And the berries, crossing the most porous of narrative membranes, are the same as those now waiting for “you” in the fridge. In honor of your rapt attention, the bowl in which they chill is “yours.” That the intact gift of chilling fruit inverts, in its chilly doubling, a famous William Carlos Williams poem, is only the final sign of your, of our, capitulation.
What I have withheld from you thus far, dear reader, is the fact that this marvelous poem appears not once but twice in Bringing the Shovel Down, in the second instance titled simply “Again.” The second poem conforms, line by line and turn by turn, to its original, except for a crucial difference, which changes everything.
This essay originally appeared in American Poets, Fall–Winter 2016.