Compost: Metaphor in Burial by Ross Gay

Ross Gay’s poem, Burial, juxtaposes the opposite qualities of life, death, and most importantly, enacts the different stages of the grieving process. Through the relatively simple act of planting plum trees, the speaker reflects upon the processes by which dead things decompose into nutrients that plants need, and chooses to fertilize the trees with some of his own father’s ashes in an attempt to “coax him back” (20). The speaker chooses to personify the ashes and the trees and even the plums that grew from them as part of his father. They do this, intending to replace the tumultuous feelings they had when their father was on his deathbed with the happier idea of his father’s happiness and silliness while he was alive and well.

Ross Gay always uses specific, stylized language when writing any of his poems. His speakers tend to focus largely on the mundane, giving descriptions and a sense of stillness with them as they snapshot just a few moments of daily life and stretch them out over many lines. There’s a lack of any meaningful urgency to get on with the story; instead, Gay produces speakers that take their time in their poetry. In Burial, these lines illustrate that very well: 

which is why a couple springs ago 

when first putting in my two bare root plum trees 

out back I took the jar which has become

my father’s house, 

and lonely for him and hoping to coax him back 

for my mother as much as me,

The speaker’s language is very particular; instead of using “years” they say “springs,” the plum trees are described as “bare root,” and the father’s urn is described in a roundabout way as a jar that has become his house. Despite having six lines dedicated to this, all it really says is that two years ago, when he planted his plum trees, he took out his father’s urn. Instead, the flowery words used to prolong these lines give us a sense of the finer details. Using “springs” instead of “years” brings to mind everything that spring stands for: rebirth, growth, and renewal. Denoting the saplings as “bare root” implies that they have room to grow, and are ready to take in nutrients and water. And finally, we understand the speaker’s emotions towards his late father, and how dearly they and their mother miss him.

Ross Gay’s lack of punctuation and capitalization is another common practice of his. This makes the poem into one long run-on sentence, and it ends up feeling as if it were a train of thought or a stream of consciousness. This is more obvious in some of the lines in Burial. The speaker says, “waving the flag from his subterranean lair, / the roots curled around him like shawls or jungle gyms, like / hookahs or the arms of ancestors,” and goes on, giving more and more of this personification without taking a breath (40-42). There is no emphasis on formality or pauses, other than the slight ones afforded by the commas. Instead, it is a rushing stream of concepts, piled on thoughts and ideas that are not meant to be read or spoken separately. Gay intends for them to be together, mashed into a single train of thought.

The speaker’s suggestions throughout the poem denote a transcending quality to this experience. They tend to avoid explicit descriptions of death, corpses, or ashes. However, they do not stray from using the word “placenta” in line seven, suggesting images of birth, rather than death. Later on, in line 55, the words “cathedral glass” come up, and shortly after the speaker uses words like “prayerful” and “grace.” Each of these have a religious connotation, implying that the growth of these plum trees is, in fact, a sacred act for the speaker. In fact, the earlier mention of spring and its connotation of rebirth comes from Christianity. While the poem is about a person making peace with their father’s death, overwhelmingly, the poem has a very poignant lack of anything suggestive about death or the nature of it. Instead, the poet speaks about the sacred act of rebirth and resurrection implicit in the idea of fertilizing plants with human remains.

The events in the poem do not happen chronologically. There are three separate times present within the poem: the planting of the tree, the growth of the plums two years after, and when the poet’s father actually died. In lines 70-76, the speaker describes the father’s actual death as a way to suggest that the father himself would despise being remembered that way:

until the last wind in his body wandered off,

while my brother wailed like an animal,

and my mother said, weeping,

it’s ok, it’s ok, you can go honey,

at all of which my father

guffawed by kicking from the first bite

buckets of juice down my chin,

Burial, despite the title and the subject matter, is about the recontextualization of memory and of coping with death by remembering someone as they were in life.

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