ROSS GAY: “...what do you think this singing and shuddering is...”
The album, Dilate your Heart begins with the title poem from Gay’s 2015 collection Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, in which he answers a robin’s call and sings the praises of sunchoke and lemon balm, horses and walnut trees, his beloved’s whisper in the beehive and Bloomington’s own Community Orchard. His words, voiced by Gay himself are paired with the twinkling tones of the Grammy award-winning indie folk band Bon Iver.
Gay has performed this poem a number of times; live in the Orchard, at the I Fell Gallery, and on a Zoom call or two. With Bon Iver’s soundtrack--which can also be experienced with images on YouTube, in one more collaboration with Eric Timothy Carlson-- it is another thing entirely. It’s exciting to think of this video as an entry point for poetry directed towards a whole new audience. In this first track on the album, the poet pulls you towards him, he thanks you for listening. Everyone is welcome.
Mary Lattimore provides the music for the second piece, Burial, a poem about the author mixing his father’s ashes into the soil when he plants two plum trees. The vocals are echoey, as though he’s reading to a large empty room. The artist plays with the sound, weaving the voice with feathery harp strums. The piece rises majestically, mimicking the poet’s gentle self-mocking.
ROSS GAY: “…you know, oh father oh father, kind of stuff...”
KAYTE YOUNG: Gay follows with a moving description of his father dancing.
ROSS GAY: “…when he knew he could make you happy, just by being a little silly. And sweet.”
KAYTE YOUNG: To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian is Gay’s celebration of a tree in Philadelphia and the people gathered beneath it, enjoying the unlikely harvest. For this track, Gay partners with renowned free jazz clarinetist and avant-garde performance artist Angel Bat Dawid. The vocals are full and rich, and the poem is performed beautifully. Dawid’s music is not a backdrop for Gay’s words--the two artists are in conversation. The music is its own poem, one that the listener cannot ignore.
In the fourth track, Poem to My Child, If Ever You Shall Be, Gia Margaret brings her ambient, spacious sounds to Gay’s unflinching optimism. His voice is small and intimate, as though speaking into a cup, with a string attached, stretching from one treehouse to the next—a private conversations. The music builds and rings, gathering up the words.
ROSS GAY: “...and there are millions of leaves collecting against the curbs, and they are the most delicate shade of gold.”
KAYTE YOUNG: When the poet describes the child’s possible mother, Margret’s music turns soft, melodic and twinkly.
ROSS GAY: “...every rain drop and sand grain and blade of grass worthy of love and love and love, tiny shaman.”
KAYTE YOUNG: The word “love” echoes and fades before the track ends with the scratchy click of a needle on an old record, turning into a faint and understated heartbeat.
For the final track, Sorrow is Not My Name, Ross Gay joins forces with Sam Gendel. Here is an actual song--and Ross Gay is the lyricist and the vocalist. The musician coaxes Gay’s voice into singing, using vocal filters and something like autotune. Next, he jumbles the words of the poem, so that we hear them again, with new pairings, the song’s refrain.
There is a heart-rending depth of sadness in each of these poems. And Ross Gay shares a secret he has uncovered: these sorrows-- allowing ourselves to feel them and to know them--can become the source of our most soaring joys.
Dilate Your Heart on Jagjaguwar is currently available digitally, and is available physically as of April 9th. It’s the first release of JAG25, a year-long initiative celebrating the label’s 25th Anniversary. Centered around a series called Jag Quarterly, the four-part project features new collaborations from artists within and outside of the Jagjaguwar family. Each installment will resurrect a different mantra from the label’s past: Dilate Your Heart, This is a Mindfulness Drill, Join the Ritual, and the original Jagjaguwar mantra, Sentimental Noise.