Defying Gravity: A Review of Ross Gay’s Be Holding

Be Holding, Ross Gay’s fourth full-length collection published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, is a book-length poem that creates an extraordinary universe for the speaker and the reader to inhabit together. Part ekphrastic exploration of photography and film, part hymn to sport, part elegy, part meditation, Gay’s writing invites readers to engage with history, family, joy, and Black cultural expression by transforming the physicality of basketball legend Julius Erving into a boundless vehicle for Gay’s interrogation of the personal, social, and political realities of the world that his speaker inhabits. It is a book that challenges us to leap with Gay, much like the grounding narrative force of Dr. J leaping, defying gravity, between such a varied collection of subjects until we are forced to confront who or what we are indebted to and to ask ourselves where our gratitude lands.

The challenge of sustaining rhythm and momentum in a book-length poem is significant, and Gay is successful in this endeavor through unexpected means. Although the couplet, in its heroic form, is a traditional tool of the long poem, a la Chaucer and Pope, Gay’s use of this lineation is not consistently iambic or rhymed. Instead, Gay is able to sustain this form through an internal rhythm that is propelled by the informal tone of his revelations. The poem feels conversational, and without the use of couplets, readers might be in danger of glossing over some of Gay’s insights. However, Gay’s expert hand molds this sometimes-static form to slow our reading just enough so that we may linger over his beautiful descriptions of Dr. J defying gravity in the 1980 NBA Finals or the horrific pain born out of witness in his ekphrasis of a photograph of two Black people falling from a fire escape:

The adult near the bottom of the photo tumbled
into a dive, her left forearm and hand

elegantly drawn into what could be a wave
but is not, obscuring her face,

though behind the tiny gully at her wrist
is her eyebrow and the slight shadow

cast by the small cave of her eye socket
And what it was seeing,

In no uncertain terms, Gay contextualizes this compelling description of a horrible event. Couplet by couplet, the speaker describes in minute detail the falling bodies until the moment becomes an ever-expanding act of witness in which the reader and the author learn together that the photographer was awarded a Pulitzer for the shot, and that the photo is hung in a gallery “visited by classes of mostly but not all white children / checking their phones // mostly not noticing.” By placing the scene in the context of the art gallery, the ugly reality of the indifference to the plight of these Black women is exposed. Next, Gay’s expertly paced couplets reveal the names of the falling people in the photo as Diana Bryant and Tiare Jones, and that Tiare Jones, the child, survived by landing on Diana, her godmother. Sometime later, Gay tells us, Tiare was photographed again standing by that gruesome picture, not in a ceremony of reverence for her dead godmother nor in celebration of Tiare’s survival, but in recognition of the photographer’s Pulitzer Prize:  

someone decided to take
a picture of a little black girl

decided to shoot
a little black girl

pointing and smiling at a photograph of herself
forever falling to her death

This crescendo of what Gay calls “witnessing the unwitnessable” resolves itself through the speaker’s reminder to himself and to his readers to “breathe,” a word whose meaning is complicated by the way in which Gay so deftly connects it to his description of the photographer down “on one knee” indifferently adjusting the focus on his lens. This precise word choice inexorably links the actions in the poem to the tragedy of Eric Garner, even though the connection is not explicitly stated. These subtle moments of diction-driven tension are supported so well by the pause that Gay’s use of couplets gives to his verse. This primes readers once more for his ekphrastic exploration in even greater historical and socio-political terms by admitting that the photographer was:

Doing his job,
adding his small work,

his touch,
to the museum

of black pain….

In a moment of voice, Gay then ruminates on a thought that connects the speaker’s acts of witness to a much more personal interrogation:

I wonder if, no,
I wonder how,

I too am a docent
In the museum of black pain…

This reflection ultimately resolves itself by bringing the reader back to the controlling conceit of the collection, Dr. J’s famous shot in the 1980 NBA Finals. Through his selective word choice and precise description, Gay juxtaposes the horror and pain of the falling bodies with the beauty and power of Dr. J’s defiance of gravity. In this moment, Gay brilliantly juxtaposes Dr. J’s control and purpose against pain and indifference by focusing on the beauty, resilience, genius and strength of his movements:

. . . Doc knows when and for how long
to pull his head towards his heart

so as not to smash it into the glass backboard
which would, at this speed and angle

hurt him bad or kill him,
the goal made missile by Doc’s flight

sailing just above his right ear,
the daily evasion of which is,

as you know,
a version of genius,

These are the kinds of epiphanies that pepper Gay’s collection. And as the collection expands, so do the political and social explorations of selfhood in relation to larger historical contexts. For example, Gay’s own heritage is set against a photograph (the same photo that is on the book’s cover) of a young Black child and his grandmother standing in a doorway in rural Georgia in the 1940s. Gay once again takes up the ekphrastic charge in order to interrogate his own history and that of his grandfather, a sharecropper, whose body was exploited as “loot,” and his father who served in the military to prove that his worth as a citizen was “not cargo loot / thrown overboard.” These explorations of self in relation to the historical and social contexts of how people are connected to their own history is, ultimately, the journey that Gay’s collection offers to the reader.

In the last movement of the poem, Gay once again returns to ekphrasis by breathing life into a picture of two young Black women running towards the camera. He uses this photo as an opportunity to connect many of the lingering threads in the collection: family, flight, physicality, the natural world, violence, bigotry, and history. Gay’s goal here is to guide readers towards his own larger realization that he, the speaker of this collection, as well as the rest of us, are all “beholden” to those who have come before us, to each other, and to the future that we are all helping to shape. It is this gesture of interconnectivity that brings Gay’s narrative full circle to the image of Dr. J’s weightless moment so that it may function as an allegory of humanity’s shared weight. After all, Dr. J hits the ground after his shot, but according to Gay, this kind of grounding is not necessarily a bad thing. It encourages us that we must become aware of the moments of beauty, resilience, genius, and strength that surround us, even if they are brief, so that we may reach towards each other, reflect upon who we are, and collectively breathe.


Keith Kopka

Keith Kopka received the 2019 Tampa Review Prize for his collection of poems, Count Four (University of Tampa Press, 2020). His poetry and criticism have recently appeared in the New Ohio Review, The Kenyon Review, The International Journal of the Book, and many others. He is also the author of the critical text, Asking a Shadow to Dance: An Introduction to the Practice of Poetry (GRL, 2018), the recipient of the International Award for Excellence from the Books, Publishing & Libraries Research Network, and a Senior Editor at Narrative Magazine. He directs the low-res MFA at Holy Family University in Philadelphia.

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