Winner of the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award
Be Holding is a love song to legendary basketball player Julius Erving—known as Dr. J—who dominated courts in the 1970s and ‘80s as a small forward for the Philadelphia ‘76ers. But this book-length poem is more than just an ode to a magnificent athlete. Through a kind of lyric research, or lyric meditation, Ross Gay connects Dr. J’s famously impossible move from the 1980 NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers to pick-up basketball and the flying Igbo and the Middle Passage, to photography and surveillance and state violence, to music and personal histories of flight and familial love. Be Holding wonders how the imagination, or how our looking, might make us, or bring us, closer to each other. How our looking might make us reach for each other. And might make us be reaching for each other. And how that reaching might be something like joy.
The brilliant fourth book from Gay, his first since winning the National Book Critics Circle Award with 2015's Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, continues his now-signature inquiry into feeling. Shaped as a single poem in a long sentence of center-justified couplets, the drama of this unfolding sentence is impeccable, a suspension that mirrors its subject: basketball Hall-of-Famer Julius Erving's midair "baseline scoop" in the 1980 NBA finals. An invocation of a video of Erving opens the poem's investigation into flight, falling, and Black genius: "ave you ever decided anything/ in the air?" Gay asks in an interjection. In the space of that air, he crafts a book of associative digression, exploring photography, his own upbringing, and the afterlife of slavery in the U.S. "he cotton, the unshared crop,/ let's hereon call it what it is," he writes, "loot, plain and simple,/ which, too,// my great grandfather's body was,/ loot, and his life, loot." When, in interjections and asides to the reader, a period does appear, it is not as a halt or a command but a gesture of care: "But let's breathe first./ We're always holding our breath.// Let's stop and breathe, you and me." This extraordinary book offers an unforgettable flight from the conventional boundaries of the sentence.