The winner of the NBCC Award for Poetry offers up a collection of short lyric essays, written daily over a tumultuous year, reminding us of the purpose and pleasure of praising, extolling, and celebrating ordinary wonders.
To catalogue delights and to delight in them at some length, as Gay does, shines a light on otherwise private, intimate moments, and the book that collects this catalogue has the feel of a devotional poem. Because Gay is a poet, it’s hardly a stretch to read his prose as versifying, and an attentive reader will notice moments of overlap between the concerns in The Book of Delights and Gay’s poetry ... it’s not simply that Gay has dedicated this book to a single idea—delight in its many forms—but that in its repetition, in his act of finding delight in rice candy, in music from a passing car, in babies on planes, and in a backyard log pile, it becomes an enthusiastic exercise in observance ... The shock of Gay’s writing—and I wonder if I would have fully understood this if I hadn’t heard the work read aloud by Gay himself—is his seamless shift from breezy, affable observation to sober (and admittedly still affable) profundity ... I want to say that Gay’s writing is magical because that’s the way it feels when I read it. But the essays didn’t come into being with a flick of the wrist, a wave of the wand. Calling it magic undercuts Gay’s craft, the effort that goes into producing literature that feels as fluent and familiar as a chat with a close friend. His voice has integrity, in both senses of the word: a completeness or consistency, true to itself; and an honesty and compassion...so frankly subjective that it produces an incorruptible vision.
Ross Gay is known for his poetry, but The Book of Delights proves that he’s also an adept essayist ... reflections that are sometimes whimsical, sometimes touching, and always thoughtful ... Documenting his travels and encounters over the course of his year with a wry, deft touch, his book stays true to its title and demonstrates his estimable talents as a prose stylist as well as poet.
Lest you think these essays are all airy and silly and hold no truck with the grind of the so-called real world, keep in mind that Ross Gay’s garden is concerned just as much with death as it is with pretty flowers. Most of this collection was written in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the weight of which applies pressure to the search for delight. There are tragic deaths, illnesses, racism and horror in these pages. Paying attention requires a deep focus lens; nothing can be ignored in favor of simple bliss. What is gained from this acute watchfulness? If not wisdom, then at least a certain clarity.