Algonquin Books, 2019. $23.95, 288 pages.
C. D. WRIGHT once wrote it was her “confirmed bias that poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words.” In The Book of Delights, a yearlong experiment in cultivating delight through daily essays, poet and writer Ross Gay beckons readers to linger with the beauty of the world and his belief in the human desire to conspire in that beauty by reorienting the quotidian to joy’s robust configurations.
It’s hard not to reach for religious language when describing Gay’s work. It’s filled to the brim with spirit and the temporal allegiance with dailiness that abides at the root of mortality and spiritual practice alike. One of the shorter essays, “Lily on the Pants,” is prayer, hymn, sermon, and benediction, all in one go. In Gay’s ecumenical view, delight is found in the poignant and the loving, the light and the shadows, and the intentional process of tuning in to all the places— expected and unexpected— where it may reside.
His delights are wide-ranging and unrestrained, the greater of them often interrupted by smaller ones in a chain of digressions. These smaller delights, tossed off on the way to somewhere else, serve as unobtrusive reminders of delight’s many textures and the fact that, although omnipresent, delight isn’t universal. Some of Gay’s delights beckon and invite, their doors thrown open in celebration. Others stand like rocks in a stream, bearing an enduring, almost obstinate, witness. Wherever Gay finds his delight, he offers intimacy, rapport, and an open invitation to explore its many guises: joy, wonder, pleasure, sorrow, justice, revenge, anxiety, tenderness, caretaking, relief.
When Gay pauses to define delight in “Joy Is Such a Human Madness,” an essay after Zadie Smith’s of the same title, he gives a “false etymology: de-light suggests both ‘of light’ and ‘without light.’ And both of them concurrently is what I’m talking about. What I think I’m talking about. Being of and without at once. Or: joy.”
As he grapples with this definition, he revels in basic connections: our role in the nutrient cycle, the wash of food that nourishes our animal bodies, the wildernesses between us, and the hope that we might join them together. Gay is fascinated with nature and human nature alike, and, amid his curiosity, there’s a persistent return to the idea of gardens. Whether discussing a literal act of horticulture or its metaphorical extension, Gay uses cultivation and tending to question how we create and connect our interior and exterior spaces. Bindweed and procrastination, floral prints and masculinity, the Grim Reaper and lawnmowers, bouquets and public statues, plant cuttings and lineage: the garden emerges as a perennial place for delight’s praxis, his “thumb and forefinger caressing the emergent things free.”
Throughout the collection, Gay’s voice is inimitable, his essays as particular as a fingerprint. He jokes, “But I don’t think Montaigne would like this essay, as it has been only a warm-up. Maybe everything is always only a warm-up,” but something marvelous resides in the difference between each of his essays or even between his essays and Montaigne’s ideal. There’s a proximal rhythm to Gay’s constructions: fragments echoing with caesura, clauses and modifying phrases stacked into tumbling towers of paragraph that break with a stanza’s precision. Yet, for all the abandon of Gay’s usage, there’s also an omnipresent sense of distillation, a preoccupation with the essential. Stamped with their own rhythm and frequency, each essay is equally thoughtful, cogent, and interesting.
“Meditative” is often code for passé or tedious, but The Book of Delights’ musings are neither. Gay’s essays sparkle with charm, wit, and laugh-out-loud funny bits jostling cheek and jowl against eschatological explorations and philosophical concerns. No matter the emotional timbre, Gay’s thoughts unfurl with a lush beauty, delighting the terroir of the writing and reading alike.