Loss, disease, and death
Ross Gay’s Against Which is a collection of poems that is an incredibly poignant and inspired piece of work. His narrative slips in and out of first person for some of his poems to better capture the essence of what he is portraying.
He writes from a very candid and honest source, telling the truth of what he knows in a rich and descriptive manner. He speaks with educated diction about authentic, gritty content and provides a refreshing take on some very common themes.
The title of the book is a reflection on opposition. The title poem examines things people might oppose as points of tension with which any reader can identify. Ross highlights a message of hope in this poem, that despite all of the despair humanity faces, we can and will prevail. The tremendous tenacity and perseverance displayed in this poem resonates in the rest of the work, with poems that cover topics like family, death, love, and loss.
The book is separated into three parts, without any thematic elements consistent to each one. Once readers note certain subjects or topics used in poems from a certain part, they can recognize some of the recurring motifs and images in the later sections. Gay uses list forms and writes poems in a specific sequence.
His repetition of certain words, like “limning” and “gingko trees” is noticeable in poems like “Unclean. Make me.,” and “Litany,” as well as “The Hernia” and “Slipping From Lips.” The last two are true studies of nature, and his descriptions of how the seasons change and the personification of the gingko tree help the reader to understand his distinct view of the world and incredible awareness of gesture
Themes of illness and death and recurring images like dirt, mud, nature, breath, and blood all permeate the book in an unforgettable way. He uses these words like a refrain and attacks each one from every angle. He bounces around from poem to poem like a basketball, hitting the ground hard with a characteristic ping, and his poems leave you with lasting visuals.
Some of the more foul and gritty poems were “Bar-b-q,” “Lynching,” and “Gophers.” These poems all describe some violent or grotesque situation that leaves one questioning human nature and some of its more immoral practices. “Ruptured Aneurysm,” “One Eye Gone Black,” “Broken Mania,” and “Alzheimer’s,” and all emphasize the personal and family battles with cancers and other terminal illnesses that plague his life and those of his relatives. The poems “Patience,” “Dead Hair,” “Why Would We Not,” “Outbreath,” and “Dying is An Art” all display how he has come to terms with death and how he perceives it in his own life and the lives of his family.
Love and lust also are themes to note here, with poems like “Bullet” addressing the intense desire of an inanimate object like ammunition. “Let Me Be,” “Coming Out of You,” “Poem Beginning with a Line Overheard in a Gym,” and “Unclean. Make me.,” all examine intercourse and intimacy in some seemingly rough terms, however, these poems display his role in these interactions, sexual or not, with women.
The delicate dynamic between father, son, and family is examined in the poems “The Voice,” “The Walk,” “Poet Dreams,” and “How to Fall in Love with Your Father.” They provide the reader with insight into each relationship and how it changes through the progression of an illness and what toll that takes on all parties involved. “The Walk” was especially endearing and tender. This poem talks about his grandmother and shows the selfless love of a true elder, from whom he has learned a lot. “The Voice” is a coming-of-age poem, detailing Gay’s journey from boy to man, showing the lessons he learned and things taught to him by his father, and “How to Fall in Love with Your Father” represents his destination; the author arrives at a place where he can finally return the favor.
“Angels Out of Reach” is a poem that focuses on his being drunk and high on mushrooms, and these altered states of being make for a wonderful description of his time with a woman and the weather outside, and the view of his surroundings while perched in a tree.
This poem, rich with details about everything around him, really allows you into his drunken mind, still sane enough to tell you that the woman’s smile is “sharp and subtle as clear glass drifting at a sandy lake bottom.” This poem truly encapsulates Gay as a beautiful writer, one whose seemingly regular experiences with drinking, women, sickness, and his environment are all heightened, turned extraordinary even, with his extended metaphors.