I’ve been happy these days, moment by moment, and the mind that once roiled with lust and rage is tranquil. The big questions have all been answered. How will I do? Whom will I love? What will I untimely suffer? What dread fire?
But that’s not all. I feel a presence. Not too close, not imminent. An impending shadow, out there in the zone of tinnitus or climate change. Age. I am on the verge of withering into truth.
Yet, at noon on Mondays and Fridays, I spread my leaves, grab my gym bag and trot to the rec center. I am playing basketball again.
It’s been so long since I suited up that I don’t know what to do with my bifocals or wedding ring. The shorts are bloomers, the jersey is an ad banner, and the clown-big sneakers swoosh. The nets are distant as Joyce’s God; the floor is hospital parquet. There’s even a three-point line (three is two in a game to eleven by ones).
But I’m back. Nothing has changed. And everything.
I don’t feel old. If I woke alone in a strange bed, I’d have no notion if I were thirty or sixty. Pull the blinds and my prana could lounge through any of ten thousand mornings, teaching or biking or bavading or banging the bodhran sans calendar. I’ve lost no bandwidth of memory, no inch of height. I was already bald. I have no children or corporate ladder to notch years. My job is stagnant, my town timeless as Brigadoon.
But change is coming. By fall or slide or decrepitude or aphasia, in some nearly foreseeable season it will come. Age. The vestibule of empty. I expect it, as I once anticipated manhood. And like manhood, it will arrive all at once.
But for now, I am ageless. Everywhere but here.
Of course, I’m not really playing, if playing means being in the game. Most basketball activities are no longer available to me. I can’t sprint, or box, or shoot. I have no hops. Good thing I’m lefty, since I can barely lift my right arm above my shoulder. My eyes seem ok, and from wrist to fingertip I’m unimpaired. And in this pick-up game I’m still tall. I can slouch my ass down to Bethlehem and post up.
Who are these lunchtime hoopsters? They are the quick. Neither moribund nor slow. For the quick, the future is a distant rim, the past a no-look turnover. What transpires here and now—on the court, on earth—is all that counts: How good? How long? Always? Anyone else?
For the quick I am not ageless. I am a portent.
I look the part. Bald helps, but I bring so much more: bypass scar, droop eye, liver spots, cabbage knees. I jog as if through swamp. I am my own slow-mo replay. My countenance bears witness to campaigns beneath rusted rims. I am six degrees from Dr. Naismith.
The quick take heed. They profer no trash. Both sides cheer my rare scores. A budding paramedic asks twice if I’m alright. Through whole sessions I am unjostled. Today, after yawning through my abbreviated up-fake and arthritic hook, my defender patted my ass. “Fundamentals, Old School,” he purred. “Sound.”
After lunch, I hobble back my desk, gulp Powerade and lour. After lunch, I am an editor. Poetry editors are not quick. We plod. We stall. We are in daily congress with the ageless. So what if quick verses flash by? Let them break unmetrically and enjamb on a dime. When stanzas drive head down, when they fade from three for two, when they won’t pass, I tap my comic-strip fedora and chomp my wraith cigar.
“Fundamentally unsound,” I growl.
I pat their ass and sit them on the bench. Then I roll out the x’s and o’s.
“Ok Speedsters, huddle up.”
They stroll through gentian and coltsfoot to the pond’s edge,
while last light silts the water. Dusk
and Monet believes again this is his masterwork; that’s why
he stays; to be inside the painting unscrews
“Stop there, Ace. Gentian? Coltfoot? You’re from Queens. They’re just botanical symbols to you. And the line breaks? Yes, I get it: torquing the syntax, that little stutter step. Yes, dusk at the margin is eerie and seems to swallow all six beats. But where to go from there? You’ve pushed the caesura to the brink, but haven’t laid down the dream cadence. You’re riffing off no pattern.
My fingernail screeches across the board.
“Past ‘Dusk’ the silence is so grave I’m shouldered out of the dream and I never reach Monet. It’s all one direction. Only one thing happens.”
I rap my knuckle on the three last words.
“Dusk. Why. Unscrews.
"They’re real and here and now. You think they enjamb, but for me they end stop. I can’t go back. I’m standing alone out of time.”
I swipe the board clean. “Next.”
There is a place in far north Canada…
To lurch, crooning in moonlight from the pub…
Broke in my mother’s country
where there are no woods…
“What do they do, these gambits? They live. Here in the blessed world. I get it. And why not say what happened, as Lowell asked. But Lowell first ran years of suicide sprints. His ‘what happened’ was a refuge; yours is an adventure.
“So stop. Look again. Why not say it awake: in sentences. When Pound said that poetry needed to be at least as well written as prose, he wasn’t talking about grammar. He meant—or I say he meant—that sentences will always be our first way of moving through the waking world. One on one on one. Forward. Capable of being seen. But they move in one direction. Lines have to offer something else, compassing return.
“Poetry isn’t a set of conventions any more than basketball is an industry. It’s a way of doubling, of being in and out. You play, and your mind sings, daydreams, makes love, or enters a dark forest. It happens once in sentences. But lines glide back and forth, above and below the rim. They are the present absence.”
It’s not their fault, I know. It’s me. I’ve lost my touch. I can’t play the quick. They are bright and earnest and freshly pixelated. But they are completely present. They press full court. They charge both ways at once.
And they can’t play me. To them, I am already bronzed.
Lunchtime is different. It doesn’t take place all at once. All the lunchtimes of the past close in. Because my legs are slow and my mind quick, one sneaker runs in the shade of once and the other paces alongside in the glare of now.
This poor forked animal trundling between tenses? Once it battled Mazembé under a Katanga moon; once it autographed “Rick Barry” for skinheads on a Dublin tram; once it played—really played—with spirit, sweat and nerve—on this very court at lunchtime eons back, when flesh and soul were ‘twined.
But it is only grappling with now that once achieves final form.
The quick sense this; in my rooted footwork and palsied dribbling they glimpse the form in which we all drift, quick and slow, toward agelessness, encompassing three decades and three hundred.
These I can play with: poems of the ages. From a far once they utter now—the ultimate three for two by ones. And whether once took place in Troy or Lubumbashi or at Monday’s lunchtime when a quick kid windmilled the winning score, without the ageless nothing can touch now.
So afternoons at my desk I play the ageless, who are still quick. In this game, everything still counts.
The semicolon in the last quatrain of “Easter 1916” still counts.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
Does Yeats mean it is enough to dream? That we should believe the dream because the heroes died for it? Is Yeats the last Romantic?
Or has he taken his talents to Team Modernism? Do we know only their dream: Do we know the dream only well enough to know that they did dream, distantly as the awakened know?
A comma tips it one way; a period the other. The semicolon keeps us waiting still, paused in the infinite fraction between “enough” and “to know.”
Richard Tottel, on the verge of scratching, “It was no dream, I lay broad waking” for “For it was not a dream, I lay awake” on the galleys of his Miscellany, still counts.
If he does it, the tabloids howl.
“The Knight kept it real,” the blogs claim. “Wyatt’s a genius. Tottel’s a bum.”
But what if the waking needs to be taken slow, as Ted Roethke tweets, so the body can glide ten thousand days at once. Maybe Tottel fears an untimely fracture.
As I still fear.
And Homer—nicknamed for some hobo ballplayer. Does he count? Somewhere between the quick success of his first book and the first draft of his second, with the banquets and tributes and guest appearances, he’s lost his game.
The Iliad opens in sync with his Olympian coach. “Begin dreaming here,” he commands.
Start at the point where Agamemnon, son of Atreus,
that king of men, quarrelled with noble Achilles.
By the time he pens the sequel, he’s lost touch.
So now, daughter of Zeus,
tell us his story, starting anywhere you wish.
“Please Muse,” he’s begging her, “Start dreaming anyplace. I don’t know where I am. Please keep me in. I’ll play with everything I have left.”
Far into overtime these contests are still in doubt.
And in my hip-sore gait, in my trash-muttering, in my spasmic bound—just maybe—the quick will sense that nothing happens at once, and that everything now continues to season, and that even the ageless yearn and fear to age.
And them, the ageless? At lunchtime Mondays and Fridays, if they lean forward from the cheap seats of the Garden’s blue heaven, they might still hear me gasp, “Keep me in. Play me the fundamental sound. Let me, for this one hour, count.”