Poetry Unbound

Ross Gay

A Poem to Notice Openings and Closings

Last Updated

February 24, 2020


Ross Gay’s poem “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” uses an everyday task to examine what is made and unmade in small moments. He imagines his fingers opening and closing things, like buttons, the eyes of a dead person, relationships. In doing so, the poem asks us to simply pay attention, today, to what we’re doing with our hands — to understand them as intimate pathways into the stories of our bodies and the stories of our lives.

A question to reflect on after you listen: What have you done with your hands today? What are you opening? What are you closing?

Guest

Image of Ross Gay

Ross Gay in Bloomington Indiana, where he’s a professor of English at Indiana University. His books include the poetry collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude and a book of essays, The Book of Delights. He co-founded The Tenderness Project together with Shayla Lawson.

Transcript

Pádraig Ó Tuama, host: My name is Pádraig Ó Tuama, and I’m an Irish poet. And poetry calls me to speak it aloud. Sometimes I’ve been on a train and I’ve been reading poetry and I’ve whispered it to myself. I somehow need to feel the air at the back of my throat, and I need to feel my vocal chords constrict in order to make the poem real.

[music: “Into the Earth” by Gautam Srikishan]

“Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” by Ross Gay

“No one knew or at least
I didn’t know
they knew
what the thin disks
threaded here
on my shirt
might give me
in terms of joy
this is not something to be taken lightly
the gift
of buttoning one’s shirt
slowly
top to bottom
or bottom
to top or sometimes
the buttons
will be on the other
side and
I am a woman
that morning
slipping the glass
through its slot
I tread
differently that day
or some of it
anyway
my conversations
are different
and the car bomb slicing the air
and the people in it
for a quarter mile
and the honeybee’s
legs furred with pollen
mean another
thing to me
than on the other days
which too have
been drizzled in this
simplest of joys
in this world
of spaceships and subatomic
this and that
two maybe three
times a day
some days
I have the distinct pleasure
of slowly untethering
the one side
from the other
which is like unbuckling
a stack of vertebrae
with delicacy
for I must only use
the tips
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes
this is as delicate
as we can be
in this life
practicing
like this
giving the raft of our hands
to the clumsy spider
and blowing soft until she
lifts her damp heft and
crawls off
we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth
like this first
in the morning
then at night
we practice
sliding the bones home.”

So the first time I read this poem, I felt like I was just listening to him in a conversation, because the poem meanders through itself. The way he speaks about the pollen on the legs of the honeybee, and that has come just after he spoke about a “car bomb slicing the air / and the people in it.” Later on, he speaks about “unbuckling / […] vertebrae.” That sounds so delicate, the way he speaks about it, with “the tips / of [your] fingers.” But to unbuckle a vertebrae, again, brings you back to unbuckling a seatbelt. There’s a reference, it seems, in here about the destruction that can happen in a car. And it keeps on repeating, that idea.

He knows something there about death and about threat; and he seems to juxtapose that with this joy of buttoning and unbuttoning your shirt; and he seems to take great pleasure to think, “Today, I have buttoned and unbuttoned my shirt three times.” [laughs] I have never paid attention to how often, in the course of a single day, I’ve had to button and/or unbutton my shirt. [laughs] But as I’m talking about this poem, I am so conscious of what I’m doing with my hands. I’m touching the tips of my fingers with my thumbs. And I think this poem calls us to think about, what am I doing with my hands today? and not in any way to judge yourself for that, but just to think, how could this be preparing me for times when I’m going to need to use my hands to do something that I would much rather not do — hold the hand of somebody I love for the last time before they die, close their eyes; shake hands with somebody to say goodbye, knowing I’ll never see them again; close a door on something that I need to walk away from? Our hands are extraordinarily intimate pathways into the story of our body and the story of our life. And I think this poem calls you to simply pay attention to what, today, are you doing with your hands.

Years ago, friends of mine were staying with me in Belfast, and they had a daughter — who’s 21 now, and at the time she was three. And she was at the phase where she was saying, “You doing?” the whole time, every day, morning, afternoon, and evening; “You doing? You doing?” And she clung to me like a friendly virus, and anything I was doing, she said, “You doing? You doing?” And I found myself being drawn into her own vocabulary. It was contagious. So I’d say things like, “I making coffee.” [laughs] I was like, what are you doing to my language?

And anyway, on the last day, I was washing up dishes, and she was there — she came up to about my knee. And she was saying, “You doing?” And I said, “I washing.” And, kind of annoyed, I said to her, “You doing?” And she said, “I asking.” And she was perfectly present in the moment. And I couldn’t believe the clarity that she had. There was nothing late about her. And this poem asks you to be perfectly present and says, “This might be the best preparation for the future that we can have in our life.”

“Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” by Ross Gay:

“No one knew or at least
I didn’t know
they knew
what the thin disks
threaded here
on my shirt
might give me
in terms of joy
this is not something to be taken lightly
the gift
of buttoning one’s shirt
slowly
top to bottom
or bottom
to top or sometimes
the buttons
will be on the other
side and
I am a woman
that morning
slipping the glass
through its slot
I tread
differently that day
or some of it
anyway
my conversations
are different
and the car bomb slicing the air
and the people in it
for a quarter mile
and the honeybee’s
legs furred with pollen
mean another
thing to me
than on the other days
which too have
been drizzled in this
simplest of joys
in this world
of spaceships and subatomic
this and that
two maybe three
times a day
some days
I have the distinct pleasure
of slowly untethering
the one side
from the other
which is like unbuckling
a stack of vertebrae
with delicacy
for I must only use
the tips
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes
this is as delicate
as we can be
in this life
practicing
like this
giving the raft of our hands
to the clumsy spider
and blowing soft until she
lifts her damp heft and
crawls off
we practice like this
pushing the seed into the earth
like this first
in the morning
then at night
we practice
sliding the bones home.”

Lily Percy: “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” comes from Ross Gay’s book Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Thank you to the University of Pittsburgh Press, who published the book, and gave us permission to use Ross’s poem. Read it on our website at onbeing.org.

Poetry Unbound is Tony Liu, Chris Heagle, Kristin Lin, Erin Colasacco, Serri Graslie, Eddie Gonzalez, and me, Lily Percy. Our music is composed and provided by Gautam Srikishan. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, and This Movie Changed Me. Find those wherever you like to listen or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.

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