(Ed note: We're pleased to bring you the Los Angeles Review of Books coverage of the 2012 Olympics. To read the complete series, click here.)
MY HUSBAND AND I are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, waiting for inevitable bad news. We are sharing the Olympic Preview edition of Sports Illustrated from July 23rd because we’ve already read all the copies of People, Time, and Country Living. Over the last month, we have read every magazine in the waiting room twice over, except for this one, which is new, so we turn the pages together, and I try to figure out who is favored for Trampoline, a sport I agreed to write an essay on, though I know little to nothing about it.
For the past five years, we’ve lived in a mountainous part of Southwest Virginia — in the New River Valley, which is part of the Great Appalachian Valley. We are 30 miles from the West Virginia border. In our neighborhood, as in much of rural and suburban America, trampolines are a regular backyard fixture. They lie somewhere on the scale between ATVs and cars up on blocks, about on par with an aboveground pool. They are dangerous, the opposite of classy, and extremely fun. You can pick up a 15-foot round trampoline with a netted safety enclosure for $278 at the local Walmart in Christiansburg.
“You know the biggest story of the Olympics, right?” Steve says.
“No,” I tell him. I have no idea what the biggest story of the Olympics is. The enormous waiting room is empty but for us. The doctor has let us come during his lunch hour, so we can have more time with him. While we wait, a team of four hospital inspectors walk in with clipboards, looking like some kind of Olympic committee.
“It’s the competition between Blake and Bolt in the 100 and 200. Blake just works his ass off and Bolt claims he’s so good that he doesn’t need to.” Steve points to the pull quote in Sports Illustrated. “Nobody is going to run past me. I don’t worry,” says Usain Bolt, currently the fastest man on earth.
I am a champion worrier, but I was never a cutthroat opponent. As a poet, I am well-versed in failure. As a poet, I’ve found ways to compete sideways, take the less traveled paths. I write narrative poems. I write poems about sex and women’s bodies and babies. I write poems about Walmart. Apparently Trampoline gymnasts feel similarly. He Wenna, the 2008 gold medal winner in Women’s Trampoline, started as an Artistic Gymnast, but later switched to trampoline. In an interview, she said there were a lot of wonderful gymnasts in China, so it was very hard to become outstanding; I’m going to try Tramp, she said. One of my writing teachers, years ago, told me that it’s not his most talented students who go on to become career poets, but the most tenacious of them — the ones who just never stop.
I am tenacious. We have been trying to have a second child for the past three years. After cycles of medical treatments, and one disrupted adoption placement, we decided to try a last hail-Mary round of doctor’s appointments this month, where they found, years into our struggles, that my body has an injury from my son’s birth that they may or may not be able to correct. Some days, my body is an enemy, a source of shame; other days, I feel sorry for it, trying its best, not catching a break. “My self-betraying body needs to grieve,” writes Marilyn Hacker. There will be more travel and tests. There will be more waiting in doctors’ offices, in social workers’ offices. I have grown graceful at waiting.
It is Wednesday and I’m still trying to write this essay on poetry and Trampoline. I’m looking up terminology, reading about history. The trampoline was invented in the 1930s in a garage in Iowa by George Nissen, a University of Iowa gymnast, diver and inventor, who had, at one time, been a part of a traveling acrobatics act called the Three Leonardos. Nissen’s Spanish nickname while he was on tour with the act was "Campeón de Trampolin” — Champion of the Diving Board — and thus, the Trampoline was born and trademarked to the Nissen Trampoline Company.
There are three types of Gymnastics events at the Olympics: Artistic Gymnastics (the most popular and familiar of the disciplines), Rhythm Gymnastics, and Trampoline, which was introduced at the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney. A trampoline routine includes 10 skills made up of different combinations of somersaults and twists, performed at heights as great as 30 feet. Some sports commentators compare it to the equivalent of ten leaps off a three-story building. The routines last about 60 seconds each, and gymnasts must land and hold still for three full seconds at the end of their performance. The maneuvers have names like Fliffus and Triffus. Like Barani and Rudolph and Adolph and Crash Dive. Final scores are determined by combining difficulty, execution, and time of flight. According to Sports Illustrated’s Olympic Preview issue, in men’s Trampoline, Dong Dong of China is favored for the gold; for women’s, He Wenna of China is the frontrunner.
But it’s Wednesday, and Trampoline isn’t being broadcast until Friday and Saturday. Before I get anything substantial down on the page, I’m sucked in to watching the women’s quarter finals in Fencing — specifically, Individual Sabre. The arena is dark and two women — Mariel Zagunis of the USA and Zhu Min of China — stride in wearing jackets, plastrons, and knickers, holding their sabres with their masks tucked under their arms. The announcers say all or nothing; they say pressure on her shoulders; they say she fought to come back. It’s not clear which woman they are talking about. In high school, when I didn’t make the tennis team, I took up fencing — since no students had fenced before, it was an open team without tryouts. I am not naturally athletic. I also lack a serious competitive streak, which was a problem, as fencing is all about the competition, the crouching, the attack. A commentator reads a quote from Zagunis: “No matter what my opponent does, I have a game plan. I must execute it.”
Before today, Mariel Zagunis was the only Olympic women’s Sabre champion, as the sport was first included in the 2004 Summer Olympics, and she won gold medals in both 2004 and 2008. She did not, as it turns out, medal this year. She did win the match against Min though, which I watched in its entirety instead of writing about Trampoline. They riposted, they retreated, they parried. Sometimes the two women screamed while they lunged toward each other — guttural yeows of pent up aggression.
When the announcers interviewed Zagunis after winning her quarter finals match against Min, she said, “I’m going for a new championship. I never live in the past. I’m concentrating on the current.” In order to write a poem, I must mine the past, but also excavate the present, which becomes the future as I untangle it. As I do this, I exist only in the moment of writing the poem. I concentrate on the movement forward and forget I’m concentrating at all. But I have not been writing very many poems lately. My body is stuck in a strange limbo along with my family’s future, and I don’t have the language to describe it. When I do use the language I have, the poem’s bodies don’t shape themselves on the page in ways that feel right.
“The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account. / That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect,” wrote Walt Whitman. I would like to believe both of these things simultaneously — that all of our bodies are perfect as they are, that the accounting of them is meant to be difficult. One of my colleagues, Tom Gardner, often reads poems as maps of the poet’s thought process — clues to the way their minds move. And how closely in these Olympics I am scrutinizing the bodies of strangers and the way they move across our TV screen, rather than analyzing the bodies of poems for clues to the minds that shaped them. I am as interested in traces of movement as I am in the athletes themselves — the splash that follows a diver’s feet, the flashing of a fencer’s mask, the mat of the trampoline still shuddering after a gymnast’s routine.
On Friday, I finally get to watch men’s Trampoline — the qualifying round — and I am struck by how impossibly fast this sport moves, and how noisy it is. Every time a gymnast rebounds, the trampoline’s metal springs creak and stretch, and most surprisingly, you can actually hear many of the gymnasts exhale with a slight whistle when they reach the zenith of each bounce. On Saturday, I hear the women bound and rebound, propel themselves upwards, whistle-exhale. The announcer talks about the gymnasts, what each one loves about this sport — the height, the feeling of flight, hearing the wind in her ears. “I love this body / made to weather the storm.../ I love it clear down to the soft / quick motor of each breath,” writes Yusef Komunyakaa.
Poems are made of words that live in bodies — bodies shaped by line breaks, and fixed forever in space, on the page. Picture a gymnast in relation to the trampoline, the invisible line between the two driven equally by unseen forces of gravity and the gymnast’s own strength. When a poem is read aloud, it is a moment of flight. Its words are released into the air, into the spaces between breaths. Many poets, like Charles Olson and the Beats, see the line as an actual unit of breath. The white space left in the wake of the words is the breath materialized. When I was pregnant with my son, I had to re-lineate all my poems to shorten the lines, so I could speak them without becoming breathless.
I think of the air underneath Canadian Jason Burnett, who spins toward the arena ceiling with his eyes closed. The announcer says outrageously difficult and beautiful twisting position. When it’s Karen Coburn’s turn the next day, the same announcer says, the goal is to show that long body open every single time. The gymnasts, when they execute their routines, look like actual lines shooting through space. Lines are measure of sound, measures of meaning. When they are at their best, each line could be its own poem. If a line tries to carry too much, it can collapse under its own weight.
In Men’s Trampoline, as predicted, Dong Dong of China takes the gold. In a surprise ending for the women though, favored Chinese gymnast Ha Wenna falls on the rebound out of her last skill, and Canadian Rosannagh MacLennan wins a gold medal. The commentators say a lovely line. Nice execution. They say, let’s watch how she opens her body. Dear body. “Each line should be a station of the cross,” writes my old teacher, Charles Wright, which implies suffering. A line-break is, at its most basic, a hesitation between the spoken and unspoken. I am hesitating to speak any of this.
With trampoline, a gymnast’s job is to fight gravity, to use the power of her own body to propel herself upwards, to fly for 60 seconds, then finally stick a landing while the force of her own energy tries to knock her off her feet. So how to write when life has not been like the trampoline? When there has been, for a period of time, no flight, no fixed program, just a long stretch of held breath? The commentators say they train for this — they know how to fall.
In my one trampoline memory, my son, not quite five, and I climb on the trampoline together at a birthday party. We walk across the mat without falling, heading for the sweet spot in the middle, where, if you start to bounce, you catch air easily. In the center, flying is effortless. When I land on the trampoline, my son flies up, and when I jack myself higher, he braces himself for my landing. We are both laughing hard, harder. We are opening our bodies to the air.