This week, I’ve been spending time with the collection Bringing the Shovel Down by Ross Gay. These poems have reminded me about our responsibility as humans to act with compassion and love, especially in times of fear. Gay’s poems are tender in the face of brutality, and they feel both personal and universal. So many of them made me smile, even as they offered a powerful reflection on violence and the different ways we hurt each other.
In all of the collections I’ve read, nothing comes close to the thoughtfulness and cleverness of the title poem in Bringing the Shovel Down. This poem is repeated twice, but Gay tweaks the ending of the second one (titled “again”) to communicate a message of tolerance. In the first poem, readers follow an innocent young man as he becomes convinced that a dog named Max with a “limp and regular smell of piss” is rabid and will “likely find [him] in the night” (lines 14-16). After a group of “big kids” convince him of this, the young boy doesn’t sleep for three days, ultimately becoming a victim of their teasing and manipulation. In the end, the boy kills the dog: “the boy brings the shovel down // until Max’s hind legs stop twitching and his left ear folds into itself” (lines 43-44). In the alternate version of the poem, the boy uses the shovel to feed Max a piece of meat because he is too afraid to approach the dog: “he bends to lift the meat to Max’s toothless mouth,” (line 51). I love the message in both these poems. The shovel ultimately becomes a metaphor for the power we hold in the face of fear, and the consequences of our actions.
What I found most surprising about Bringing the Shovel Down was the way it addresses social justice issues. Gay’s poetry has a lighthearted and gentle feel to it, even as it addresses topics such as racism. The poems aren’t afraid to show their teeth, even as they end with a message of peace. This is a tough balance to strike, but Gay is a poet that exercises restraint, showing us that there is beauty amidst the most gruesome of places. For example, in the poem “Overheard” Gay juxtaposes two distinct images: “the way he pointed to the sun unfolding / between two oaks overhanging a basketball court / on 10th street” (lines 12-14). Just a few lines later, he introduces the following: “he did not say forget / the multiple shades of your mother’s heartbreak” (lines 18-19). I love this poem because it centers on the phrase “It’s a beautiful day” that the speaker overhears from a man. It’s these tiny, tiny details and narrative style of the poem that caught my attention, and made me fall in love with it.
Bringing the Shovel Down is one of those collections that I want to carry with me on bad days. It reminds me that there is good in the world, even when things seem really, really bad. Everyone deserves a piece of the hope that this collection offers.
Buy Gay’s collection here.
Cover of Bringing the Shovel Down courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about The University of Pittsburgh Press: “The University of Pittsburgh Press is a scholarly publisher with distinguished books in several academic areas and in poetry and short fiction, as well as books about Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for general readers, scholars, and students.”