If the subject matter of his books is any indication, poet Ross Gay has a single-minded focus: making the world a better place. Following on his bestselling 2019 collection, The Book of Delights, Gay returns with Inciting Joy: Essays, a collection of 14 energetic reflections that investigate how to "make joy more available to us" and "how joy makes us act and feel."
In the service of this goal, Inciting Joy surveys an assortment of topics drawn from Gay's own experience that display his gift for intensely observing the world around him. They include his involvement in the creation of a community orchard in his hometown of Bloomington, Ind., and his appreciation for the standup comedy of Richard Pryor.
But the volume isn't a catalog of unalloyed pleasure. In "Through My Tears I Saw (Death: The Second Incitement)," Gay recounts the death of his father, a man with whom he had a difficult relationship, from liver cancer at age 58. He returns briefly to that event in the collection's penultimate and longest piece, "Grief Suite (Falling Apart: The Thirteenth Incitement)," a wide-ranging survey of male emotions and his own struggle with mental health issues.
Gay concludes Inciting Joy with an essay on gratitude, describing Aretha Franklin's rendition of "Amazing Grace," in a documentary of the making of her record of the same name. One can almost hear the ecstatic voices of a gospel choir in Gay's admonition that "we belong not to an institution or a party or a state or a market, but to each other. Needfully so." It's a fitting ending to a consistently uplifting book. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer