We are bound together by what we hold. We are holding what binds us. We are held together by what Ross Gay explores in Be Holding, his epic book-length poem:what we’re bound to, held within, and our inability to let it all go. Be Holding is Gay’s seventh book, a nearly 100-page poem that is, at the surface-level, an ode to basketball and the game’s place in culture and memory. When we reach deeper, however, Be Holding is a poem about the practice of witnessing, capturing, and holding; or, put another way, Be Holding is a poem about breathing.
Gay’s writing is widely known for its continued emphasis on delight and joy. Without losing sight of those emotions as core pillars, Gay plays with structure throughout Be Holding. Here, sentences are held together by words, spaces, semicolons, and the fawned-over em dash; sentences are bound by periods, creating closed containers of thought. Gay takes meticulous care to ensure that there are only two intentional instances of periods used throughout the entirety, the first on page 39:
But let’s breathe first.
We’re always holding our breath.
While usually, an expulsion of periods creates a sense of breathlessness—quick comma-gasps moving from one idea to next—Gay avoids this sensation, finding success in his delicate layering. Without the finality of harsh periods, Gay floats: a basketball in hand, moving towards a rim with a net.
Stories are bound together by momentum. To create this movement and energy, Gay relies not only on meticulous layering of concepts and moments but uses photographs to ground the reader in writing that might otherwise feel ethereal and unrooted. Each of the six photos is an opportunity for the reader to be held by something beyond words.
Similarly, Gay uses each photo as an opportunity to discuss being “shot” at, an allegory for something larger. Though there exists a hint of ambiguity, Gay is ultimately talking about violence, particularly violence against Black people. But he doesn’t stop there: Gay is also implicitly discussing the violence of how we hold one another and then use one another, how we let one another go. We hold one another through our capture and articulation, through a photograph or a story, and then we use one another to make a point, to draw a conclusion. We let each other go, for better or worse. Gay describes a photograph of a Black grandmother with her two grandchildren:
this camera wants to do
to her boy
Gay’s concern with capturing a scene worthy of photographs extends to joy, specifically Black joy, and these sections of the poem add momentum to the descriptions of what a photo might induce in others. Describing a photo of two Black women running towards a camera, Gay notes the difference: “it does not capture or shoot anyone... but holds them both in their flight.”
This theme continues: we don’t know how to hold without shooting, we don’t know what to hold when, we want to hold until we inevitably want to let go. We are caught up in our holding: we be holding, which is different than when we behold. Ensnared and tangled within this complex desire to hold and be held, we find ourselves holding that which we shouldn’t: our breath. Gay knows this, feels this, and finally offers us a few punctuated periods to catch our breath (page 59), which is actually a letting go of air:
Gay doesn’t want us to hold our breath and he’s using a lack of periods to create space and time for us to hold something more important.
There isn’t enough time to talk about each thing Gay holds throughout Be Holding: basketball, Coney Island french fries, house plants, insurance, his family. Sometimes, when Gay is holding, he is clenching in anger or fear. Sometimes, when Gay is holding, he is tender and gentle. This is the dichotomy: the flying versus the falling. He is trying to get us to pay attention—in his words, practice—to our holding. He wants us to practice holding what matters. He wants us to hold each other.
what I’m saying,
we’re in here talking
about holding each other,
which is a practice, we
talking about holding
We haven’t touched on Dr. J which seems a crime given Gay’s clear affection towards Julius Irving of the Philadelphia 76ers and his pivotal role in basketball (and now poetry.) The Doctor knows how to hold a basketball, knows how to practice, knows how and when and why to let go: Gay binds each brief vignette into his wide-spread themes using Dr. J’s Game-changing shot (shot!) against the Lakers in 1980. The movement is remarkable—the way Irving floats for far too long, holding (holding!) this orange ball with one hand, trusting air, using velocity, using practice, and then as quickly as he left the ground, he lets go (let go!) and the orange ball moves upward (momentum!) towards a rim and a net, like some magic we didn’t know existed. Dr. J holds on and then lets go. Gay wants to hold on and let go. Are you with me? Breathe.
We are bound together with our breath. That’s it. That’s all we have. Gay knows this. He ends his nearly 100-page poem with that: we breathe (no period.) And we do: breathe. It is implicit. It binds us to ourselves, to the ground, to gravity, to each other. It is impossible to breathe without letting go. So we breathe, an actualized metaphor for our constant holding: we inhale, our holding. We exhale, letting go.
Yetta Rose Stein reads and writes in Livingston, Montana. She is a graduate of Hellgate Highschool and is currently pursuing her MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rejected Lit Mag, Orotone Journal, Grits Quarterly, and elsewhere.