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Two Deep Breaths: Sorrow is Not My Name

By Caitlin Dwyer

Last week in Oregon felt like spring on steroids. It was 72 and sunny; then it snowed. The rest of the week it hailed, sleeted, and burst out with beautiful puffy clouds while robins smacked their heads into the dirt, tugging free the sleek bodies of worms.

My first reaction to the weather was a rising anxiety. I’d been reading about how the drought in the western U.S. has become so pervasive that it’s not really a drought any more, just the way things are. Climate change is reshaping our relationship with the sky, the land, and the seasons. Everything seems out of whack. Are these frenetic extremes what my children will know as spring? Are Oregon’s mild, gentle summers gone for good?

But my tulips survived the snow. They raised long, milky-green necks and lifted big red mugs of color toward the sun. I saw a rabbit in the front yard, brown and speckled like a river rock (it was probably trying to eat the tulips). The storms had downed branches all over the city, but the trees that remained were speckled with delicate white and pink blossoms.

Ross Gay’s poem “Sorrow is Not My Name” acknowledges and reveals in this duality between life and death. The “pull toward brink” is always there, just around the corner. We can’t escape the sickle of the vulture’s beak, like Death’s reaping instrument. And yet the Gay finds joy (or at least some sweetness) in the beauty of this sickle-shaped beak, and in the ways we live in the knowledge of that inevitable “deep sleep.”

Gay, a gardener, poet, and self-proclaimed student of joy, is a master of this balance. The first half of the poem is full of the imagery of death. And then, just like that, the living things of the world rush in to fill the gap: agave, persimmon, purple okra. Even more so, the language of the living, with “names so generous as to kick / the steel from my knees,” animates the world. The neighbor sings. A girl runs through a field. There’s basketball to play. It’s spring.

What has pulled you back from despair? What “naturally occurring sweet thing” keeps you ticking and tocking? What beauty keeps you grounded when you’re worried about the future?


Sorrow is Not My Name

—after Gwendolyn Brooks

No matter the pull toward brink. No

matter the florid, deep sleep awaits.

There is a time for everything. Look,

just this morning a vulture

nodded his red, grizzled head at me,

and I looked at him, admiring

the sickle of his beak.

Then the wind kicked up, and,

after arranging that good suit of feathers

he up and took off.

Just like that. And to boot,

there are, on this planet alone, something like two

million naturally occurring sweet things,

some with names so generous as to kick

the steel from my knees: agave, persimmon,

stick ball, the purple okra I bought for two bucks

at the market. Think of that. The long night,

the skeleton in the mirror, the man behind me

on the bus taking notes, yeah, yeah.

But look; my niece is running through a field

calling my name. My neighbor sings like an angel

and at the end of my block is a basketball court.

I remember. My color’s green. I’m spring.


for Walter Aikens


Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. He is a founding editor, with Karissa Chen and Patrick Rosal, of the online sports magazine Some Call it Ballin’. Ross is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a non-profit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project.

For the poetry nerds out there, here’s a great essay on how this poem traces its lineage back to Gwendolyn Brooks and the ancestry and lineage of Black American poetry.