by Shann Ray
Published in the Inlander March 21, 2020
Have you ever heard the voice of a loved one speaking over you with unexpected kindness? In times of stress, that voice can be almost unbearably rare. I’ve been thinking about how the 24-hour news cycle is often far from gentle, not at all concerned with what might reduce fear, calm rage, or create sanctuary. Poets, on the other hand, at least the ones I know and love, tend to carry something intuitive, prophetic, and even magnanimous when the days are filled with chaos. Poets and their poems can be elusive, but they can also be approachable across distance and time, and some poems, like the poets who made them, can become as close as a good sister or brother.
One such poet is Ross Gay, and one such poem is his beautiful ode “To the Fig Tree on the Corner of 9th and Christian.”
Teaching at Gonzaga, our face-to-face moments with students have come to a halt and so I’ve decided it’s time to enlist more poetry in our online interactions. Gay’s poem has come close to us, taking us by the hand into a place of unforeseen gravity and a much-needed sense of peace. The poem is set in Philadelphia. Unmentioned below the poem’s surface, like the refrain of a favorite song, we recognize the mundane and the historical: we hear “the sound of sweeping and yes a woman with a broom” and we see “a low hung branch,” we recognize a city that has threatened those on the margins, a city that has sometimes killed its own, but deeper and more interwoven among the people who populate the poem, we see a city known as the city of brotherly love. The fig tree comes to embody that love. Above it, around it we hear the urban cacophony, the elevated train Philly lifers call the Blue Line producing “a racket in the lugwork” that accompanies the poet’s nervous or self-condemning musings of “some stupid thing [he] said or did, some crime or other.” The city, the poet says, “is a lonely place.”
In our isolation that loneliness becomes more vivid.
But in Gay’s poem, “eating from each other’s hands” and blowing “a kiss to the tree” we go from the ordinary to the miraculous…
For the rest of this wonderful piece, click here.
For videos of Seattle booksellers celebrating Ross Gay through their originally-scheduled Independent Bookstore Day #SEAbookstoredelights, click here. Below, enjoy a virtual event with Ross Gay and Daemond Arrindell hosted by Robert Sindelar of Third Place Books.
Shann Ray is the author of American Copper, American Masculine, and Balefire. He lives in Spokane, WA.