Why do sports pundits persist in recommending that rebuilding franchises trade their best
players? Thus Brian Costa in "Why Dickey Should Be Traded" (Wall Street Journal, Nov 9,
2012, p. A21) ). The theory is that the aging star will bring in hot-shot prospects that will dramatically help the team's prospects in the long range.
Unfortunately, it is logic of this sort that impelled the Mets to part
with Tom Seaver, the best player in their history, back in 1977. In
exchange for Seaver -- who had several great years left in him, and even
a threw a no-hitter in a Cincinnati uniform -- the Mets got a mediocre
pitcher, a good-field-no-hit second baseman, and two can't-miss
outfielders. Steve Henderson, the more ballyhooed of the two, had what would charitably be called a
disappointing career. The other outfielder is the answer to a trivia
question. All right, don't scarch your head. Dan Norman.
The Mets should sign Dickey not only because he had a great season but because he is a reason that fans come to the park and buy tickets. He is a Met, a crucial part of the team's identity. It interests me that he is also notably intelligent, a published author, but the germane fact is that he may well continue to pitch at this year's sensational level. While it is true that he is 38, the knuckle-ball as he throws it causes less arm weariness, and is less likely to lead to a severe shoulder, elbow, or wrist injury, than the standard pitcher's repetoire.
On the week when the Mets parted ways with Jason Bay, undoubtedly the biggest bust in a history of bad free-agent signings, two things occur to me:
-- Will columnist Jason Gay either leave the Journal or change his name to, for example, David Bright?
-- If we made a team of over-the-hill players that donned Mets' uniforms and stopped performing (.e.g. Jason Bay, Mo Vaughan, Roberto Alomar), added players acquired in one-sided deals (Jim Fregosi, Juan Samuel) or other dumb moves (George Foster), how would it fare against a team made up of players the Mets dispensed with (Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Lenny Dysktra, Kevin Mitchell, David Cone)?
The long season's over, and then came the chill. They played the World Series and nobody noticed. -- DL
As a way of starting Sports Desk again, I've decided to start by continuing with some Olympic roundups, Olympic replays and Olympic reconsiderations. Over the next 7 days I'll be running pieces from The Los Angeles Review of Books Poetic/Olympics that you haven't seen yet and a number that you have. By the time I've finished I'll be in Denton, TX where I'll have some other things to say about poetry and sports and searching.
First up, Pat Rosal discusses Mark Anthony Barriga. I've included his first piece and now the conclusion, "Keats and Barriga: Filipino Capability."
Barriga’s Olympic Debut
By Pat Rosal
Ranked 33rd in the world in the light flyweight division (49kg), Filipino boxer Mark Anthony Barriga is a longshot to earn the gold medal in London, but he showed some promise in dominating Italian fighter Manuel Cappai. Barriga outpointed Cappai, 17-7, in what was both fighters’ Olympic debut.
Barriga charged at Cappai after the opening bell with an aggressive left lead combo. It may not have connected cleanly, but it seemed to surprise Cappai with its swiftness and ferocity.
Barriga did a good job of crowding Cappai throughout the fight, unloading fierce combinations, being mostly on the move and reading his opponent’s swiping rangefinder of a jab.
Cappai revealed his own frustration when he used his shoulder to heave the smaller fighter off his feet and shove him back down against the ropes in the first round. Barriga stuck with his game plan and was the more consistent aggressor.
RAMADAN, THE ISLAMIC month of fasting, began this year on July 20th, 2012. One week later, the opening ceremonies of the Olympics took place.
Perhaps it isn’t so strange that the Olympics are taking place during Ramadan. After all, don’t both the Olympics and Ramadan occur within the body? Don’t both test the body of its ability to endure, sustain, to be disciplined?
What can a stripped art reveal?
— Gregory Orr, “Some Part of the Lyric”
We wake before dawn to eat something to sustain us throughout the day. We take the last sip of coffee, the last bite of a bagel or a bowl of cereal or a plateful of eggs. We return to our beds to sleep a few more hours or we stay up to watch the day unveil itself from night. We know the day will bring a hunger we don’t yet feel.
On August 2nd, I watch Gabby Douglas ease herself with her palms onto the balance beam during the All Around Women’s Finals. She is taut with hours and days and months of self-discipline, of training her body so it does not and cannot fall off that narrow width of suede-covered wood. I’m struck again by the way extreme control lends itself to such grace, such elegance.
ROGER GUISEPPI was one of the best players we had ever seen. He was one year below me in high school, and almost from the first day he showed up, he seemed possessed with otherworldly ball control. He could dribble past anyone at anytime, almost effortlessly it seemed. He could tell you he was about to put it on you — and there was nothing you could do to stop it. Gip (that’s what we called him) had a signature dribble. We called it a sex. To us it was the greatest ignominy to bestow upon an opposing player — to slip the ball through his legs. It was the ultimate embarrassment. Wherever we were, if you could sex your defender, the field, the courtyard, the balcony over looking the gym, the fellas standing on the corner, all went ohhhhh!! And momentarily the game would take second place to the shit-talk that accompanied the move.
I grew up in the twin-island republic of Trinidad and Tobago. To date, we are the smallest nation to have qualified for the World Cup. With a population of 1.3 million, it seems miraculous that we’ve accomplished what we have. We’ve had an Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meters (Hasely Crawford 1976). We’ve had two Miss Universes. We’ve been part of the most dominant cricket team of all time. But Trinidadians are obsessed with soccer. We are obsessed with the beautiful game and obsessed with making it look beautiful at all times. Many of the teams we’ve produced have outplayed their opponent and lost 1-0; including the heartbreaking loss to the United States in 1989, when all we needed was a draw to make it to the World Cup in Italy in 1990. We lost that game 1-0, in Trinidad. The next year, an attempted coup dominated the headlines for many months. It is impossible to decide whether or not they’re connected.
SO YOU'RE MISSING out on the biggest race of the Olympics. Okay, maybe not, but what you are missing out on is the biggest moment… for my father.
When they scheduled the surgery a month ago, it was the first thing out of our mouths. August third? Are you fucking kidding? That’s exactly when track and field starts. My brother and I went online, sick to our stomachs, telling ourselves, as long as they’re not running the 10,000, but of course they are, it’s happening early Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after they cut into my father’s spine and attempt to fuse it with three new cadaver bones in his neck.
For almost a decade now, my father has been looking forward to this race. It was late 2002 or early 2003 when he first told us of the golden-haired choirboy from Central Catholic named Galen Rupp. Rupp happens to be a Portlander, like us, and since his first race he’s shouldered the expectations of the small but passionate community of people in America who care about running. People like my father. People, I suppose, like me. Here he was, finally, the boy who could do what Steve Prefontaine could not: medal in the Olympics and stay alive. Prefontaine, who occupies the same kind of psychic terrain as Che Guevara. Who lives on the walls of hungry teenagers. Whose arrogant pre-race chatter has been silk-screened on t-shirts. Whose mustache continues to make Nike millions. Who has his own rock. Being compared to one of the only martyrs in American sports cannot be easy, especially when you look and behave like Galen Rupp.
MY HIGH SCHOOL didn’t have a swim team. We didn’t have a pool. We had a few hundred students in a single-story building just up the hill from the junior high, which was just up the hill from the elementary. A few miles away were the factories (GM, AK Steel) and farmland. I had a classmate who drove his tractor the last day of senior year (it took him two hours). We had a Biblically-successful boys basketball team who had come from behind, the underdogs, to win a state championship. The road to the high school was officially renamed ‘89 Championship Drive in their honor. Our mascot was the Minuteman. The girls’ teams were called the Lady Minutemen. We didn’t have a swim team.
Still, I swam, mostly at various public pools, every summer day of my childhood. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, we would leave after breakfast, bags packed with towels, my mother’s novels. We would stay at the pool until late afternoon, having eaten lunch there, hot dogs or hamburgers, pale half-done French fries in a paper tray. Only in the car would exhaustion hit. I would feel the sun then too, prickling my arms and the back of my neck. There is nothing quite like the exertion of swimming, a kind of peaceful burn, my muscles loosening as I leaned into the seat, the fabric damp from my suit.
What was swimming about then?
Today over at The Los Angeles Review of Books Poetic/Olympics we're talking about Basketball. Scott Cunningham and Stephen Burt break it down in fine fashion and the photos will slay you as well.
On Women’s Basketball
The truth is I screwed up. I got my priorities wrong. I missed out the real show. I watched the wrong games. I've been able to see my favorite players—the ones I already follow closely—on Team USA, which I do support, being American; but Team USA, which I've been watching, had exactly no close games, and about five close quarters, during its four games (sixteen quarters) of pool play. The first game, against Croatia, exposed some weaknesses—not much depth in the low post, for example—but it was also a tune-up; the US spotted the Czech Republic the first ten points, and didn't play defense against China for the first six minutes, but the Americans still won both games by an almost arbitrarily large span. Diana Taurasi appears to have found her shot, Maya Moore never lost hers, Tina Charles did just fine (against slower or less polished, albeit taller, opponents) while Sylvia Fowles gave a hurt foot time to heal, and Angel McCoughtry, as is her wont, scored and scored. Team USA are, in other words, still the favorites, and while they might be severely tested on the way through the elimination rounds (which started Tuesday morning: USA vs. Canada) they could also make it look easy. (Like all great performers, they make it look easy because they work hard.)
The real drama, the big surprises, and all the close games, involved teams full of names unfamiliar to me, with two or three or no WNBA players. In Group A (the USA's group) the surprises were bad ones: Brazil, who won gold in Barcelona and have put up good fights ever since, went 0-4: something's gone badly wrong with their national player development. The Czechs, who played the US close for a half and then wilted, lost unexpectedly to China and Turkey.
But the games that would have been fun for me to watch have come, by and large, in Group B, and I missed all but one. The Australians are, on paper, almost as good as expected, with multiple low-post options, including big, young Liz Cambage, who last week became the first woman to dunk in the Olympics; and the Canadians, who were supposed to feel lucky just to show up, have made it to the elimination round. I did watch Canada vs. Australia on Sunday, and the Opals (the Aussie women's team) ruled the first quarter: then they lost focus, baffled by the Canadians' superior coordination and apparently equal foot speed. A lead that was, early on, 22-7 shrank to just three points late in the match; given five more minutes of play, the Canadians would have won Especially fun to watch, against the Opals, was versatile guard Courtney Pilypaitis, recently a standout for the University of Vermont—she can shoot threes, and distribute, and turn on a dime. There's also Shanna Thorburn, who's tall for a guard, wields a weirdly flat long-distance shot, can see the floor well, and played briefly for my Minnesota Lynx. Thorburn's last NCAA game was the sort of so-close, so-close performance that no one deserves to go out on; she missed a free throw, made a free throw, and sent her team to an overtime loss, when a win would have put them in the 2005 Final Four.
Today in The Los Angeles Review of Books Poetic/Olympic Coverage, Liam and Meghan O'Rourke continued their gymnastic poetic correspondence and Patrick Rosal talked about kettle bell, depression and the poem.
A Gymnastic/Poetic Correspondence
by Liam O'Rourke and Meghan O'Rourke
First of all, hooray for our two favorite American gymnasts, Danell Leyva and Gabby Douglas winning individual all-around medals!
Fortuitously I came across the following passage Thursday afternoon, not long after watching Douglas compete so fiercely and confidently to win gold: “How so slight a woman can roar, like a secret Niagara, and with so gracious an inference, is one with all mysteries where strength masquerading as weakness—a woman, a frail woman—bewilders us.” That happens to be William Carlos Williams writing in praise of Marianne Moore in 1948. Obviously I cringed at Williams’ sexist conceit just as I would a sit-down on a tumbling pass, but the words brought to mind the conflicting thoughts I have concerning the rush of innovation in women’s gymnastics that you mentioned in our last conversation.
These gymnasts in London are the farthest thing from frail or weak, but there’s no question that women’s gymnastics is in part popular because of something that is analogous to Williams’ fascination with Moore. We are irresistibly bewildered by the mystery where unimaginable strength masquerades as a 4’11” teenage girl. Despite the fact that these female athletes are among the strongest, most physically dynamic humans on this planet, fans and viewers are often equally fascinated by their contrasting girlishness. Mustafina’s glitter hairspray and eyeshadow, Deng Linlin’s shooting star barrettes, and Gabby Wilson’s sparkling, magenta leotard all smack of an incongruity with the punishing physicality of what they are actually doing out there. The image of Kerri Strug being carried by Bela Karolyi to the medal podium in 1996 made her look so small and helpless and yet there is something about the childlike nature of that moment that actually enhances the improbable fierceness of what Strug had just accomplished on vault. I can’t help but feel that the seemingly bi-polar nature of gymnastics is no small part of its siren call.
So let’s dissect Williams’ idea of ‘masquerading’ a bit further: how much of this frothy, debutante-like display is a mask for real strength and how much of it is integral to the genuine power of gymnastics as a sport? If you look at You
tube clips of Nadia Comaneci, Olga Korbut, or other gymnasts from the 70s, a sort of gymnastics culture war plays out in the viewer comments. The majority of people on there (I’m not counting the ones who write “LOL I can’t even do a cartwheel!”) bemoan the loss of grace in women’s gymnastics and look back at this period as a golden era of the sport when routines emphasized rhythm and fluidity. Gymnasts now are being rewarded for taking risks with powerful moves in a way that sometimes outweighs the need for what so many of these fans call “elegance.”
One part of me can sympathize: after all, there’s a reason I watch those videos over and over. I am stunned afresh each time I see Nadia’s 1976 perfect ten on bars, and that’s in no small part due to the uninterrupted flow of her movements. But another part of me chafes at this nostalgic outcry for gracefulness. So what if powerful gymnasts take awkward pauses before they execute a tumbling pass on beam or floor? They are attempting to do things in the air that neither Nadia nor Olga could have conceived of as possible. Hell, I bet Tim Daggett in 1984 couldn’t do some of what Shawn Johnson or Jordyn Wieber can do when they tumble.
When I dig back further in the history of the sport and watch routines by gymnasts of the 50s and 60s like Larissa Latynina (whose name has been invoked during this Olympics over and over by the swimming commentators as Phelps took aim at her record 18 Olympic medals), I find them absurdly simplistic by today’s standards. Latynina does scales on the beam, splits on the floor, and a round-off on the vault. She does so with great elegance and I know she was a marvel for her time, but it is readily apparent that the evolution of the sport is a good thing. I am more than happy to sacrifice a little elegance for a kick-ass whip triple twist.
(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.)
YOU LEFT YOUR KEYS in your car, the security guard on the phone told me. I said, Thanks, I’ll run over and pick them up. He added, Your windows were down. Okay, I said. And your door was open. I paused. … and the keys were in the ignition… and the car was running.
People who suffer from acute depression often describe a sensation of hovering somewhere outside themselves, watching. It sounds pretty cool, except it becomes a multiplication of terror when you’re used to lifting a knife if you tell your hand to lift a knife and putting it down if you tell it to put it down. It’s an eerie disconnection from the immediate world. You can’t seem to move anything, including yourself, and everything around you seems to be made of slate — slow and gray.
Another corrupting thing about depression, somewhat related to its bodilessness, is the way your sense of time distorts. Depressives talk about having running thoughts. Think of that rambling disclaimer voice in prescription drug commercials, multiply that rate of speech by at least a factor of ten, and fill the text with some murderous material, including rather inventive, albeit gruesome, applications for a bed sheet and a tall maple tree. The disparity in speed between what you’re thinking and whatever mundane task is at hand makes you feel like you’ve lost all agency. The suggestions of the voices you hear are numerous, swift, and convincing.
Well, with no job, I gave up my apartment and took residence on a couch in Jersey City, invited by my good friend, poet Ross Gay. We lived cheaply and it was good to have his company pretty much around the clock. I started reading again, Horace’s epistles, Larry Levis, and Rilke. We watched a fair amount of Dave Chappelle and Richard Pryor. The laughter might have been what I had hoped for, the first bump out of depression.
The last full nudge back into my body was much more subtle and took some time. It happened after Ross, who is a six-foot-four Division I football alum from Lafayette College, asked if I wanted to work out with him. Me?
I did join track as a freshman in high school. But one day at practice, the field coach, after learning my javelin distances for the day, cocked his eyebrow at me asked, “Can you run, Rosal?” Kicked off the javelin squad and dumped in with the sprinters, I finished no better than second to last in every B-heat of the spring.
As for lifting, I had no interest in it at any point in my life, the repetitiveness of it and the apparent vanity. I did play a lot of street and league basketball all through my teens and twenties. I was also a 20-to-25-mile-a-week runner for a few years. But weights, in my mind, were for meatheads.
In a little cove of a room that joined the bedrooms and the living room, among all our cluttered guy shit — bikes, books, rags, dirty t-shirts — Ross had three iron globes of increasing size and weight, painted black, each with a handle on it. They were kettlebells. They were Russian, he told me, as he picked up the biggest one, about 50 pounds., and started to swing it.
You know that movement that a bird in a cuckoo clock makes? Its body drops forward and down, seeming to dip its beak repeatedly into some invisible pool before it tilts upright again? Imagine that — except the cuckoo bird is six-foot-four and about 210 pounds and he’s gripping the handle of a 50 pound ball of cast iron between his legs before he pops up and the iron bell floats up. I called it Ross’s Iron Curtain Workout and I politely declined.
I don’t remember what it was that got me into that room, but maybe a week after watching him a bit, I asked if I could join him. It’s all from the hips, he explained. So I gripped the smallest kettlebell, a 20-pounder, by the handle. I kept my back straight, gave the weight a little back swing between my legs, drove my hamstrings and quads up and popped my hips out, squeezing my glutes at the top. I used my arms for nothing except to guide the weight, which just flew up, no problem. I was a natural.
That six-minute workout had me sore for a week. I moaned at every one of the 75 steps of the brownstone to my spot on the sofa. It hurt so bad, I had to laugh. It felt like someone was ripping my tendons from my joints. After time, I stepped up to a bigger kettlebell.
It didn’t take more than a month for both Ross and me to start doing more sophisticated movements, like releasing the kettlebell at the top of the swing and catching it again on its way down. Then we would do the swing and release, but touch our shoulders while the kettlebell paused mid-air. We were flipping the weight and guiding it in figure eights around our bodies. We were tossing the bell back and forth to one another, inventing tricks, whistling Sweet Georgia Brown. A few times the whole brownstone shook when we dropped one of the bells.
(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.
(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.)
As someone who once wrestled, what I appreciate is the narrative of the match. The ritual. Wrestlers receive points for putting opponents into predicaments. Wrestlers attempt different moves and holds on their opponents — the leg sweep, the hip throw, the headlock. There are different styles of wrestling — freestyle, which is the type of wrestling I learned, and Greco-Roman, which forbids the use of foot or leg sweeps, as well as grappling below the waist. Most people know about the pin, which is also known as the fall. Many people know about takedowns, which means bringing an opponent from a standing position to a position of vulnerability on the mat. Points are scored for aggression but also for ambition — moves or holds that may put the wrestler at risk of getting pinned. The circumstance of the encounter between wrestlers happens on a soft, even plane. There are zones on that plane. The passivity zone. The central wrestling zone. Out of bounds. Combat occurs within these zones as the wrestlers move in and out of passivity, into the core. The wrestlers watch the referee. They watch the scoreboard for the time. They watch each other. The event consists of two three-minute periods. Whoever wins the most periods wins the match. If the match is tied by the end of the second period, the match goes into overtime or "the clinch." There are three opponents in wrestling — the self, the other wrestler, and time.
Another poet told me that poems were like tattoos. That you needed to "go big or forget about it." I will never get a tattoo on the inside of my ankle. I've seen guys at the gym with an inked barbed wire tattoo around their biceps and no other ink. A half-commitment. If I were to get a tattoo, I would get a massive tattoo on my back. On my high-school wrestling team, there were guys who had no necks and bodies that looked like tree trunks heavy with graffiti. They pulled crackling old wrestling shoes from their lockers. Their shoes creaked when they shoved them over their ankles. They all had scars. Muscle aches. Beside them, I was unadorned.
I was in constant discomfort in high school because I was the worst wrestler on the wrestling team. In my yearbook, someone has written "you" on my picture with the team. Honestly, though, I'm not sure that's me. We were told to put on our "mean faces" and to place our forearms against our knees, pressing them so the pressure of the knee would push the meat of our arms outward, making us look thicker. I think I'm smirking a little in the picture, maybe grimacing.
I pace when I'm in the midst of writing a poem. I step away from my desk. I distract myself. I move. I have a morning full of ritual. So much of my time before actually writing is committing myself to the ritual of sitting down. William Stafford wrote every morning just after waking up. I can't do that. I have to check off items in boxes. The morning itself needs to find a fixed form. In wrestling, it's important to be unpredictable. During the handshake ritual, I'd jog in place before shaking my opponent's hand. I'd roll my head along my shoulders. I'd crack my knuckles. I'd loom. Here, though, the poems always manage to dictate their own pace. There is never enough time for them so we must devise a structure for them. A way to size them up. A way to pull them down and hold them tight.
My wrestling singlet was standard issue. It was made from a nylon/lycra blend, so it stretched but it didn't breathe. The singlet is a piece of equipment with purpose. It not only needs to cover up the private areas of the wrestler, but it needs to cling tightly to the wrestler's body in order to prevent an opponent from using the singlet for the purposes of grappling or taking down the wearer.
I wrestled in the 130lb/60kg weight class. My build was problematic for my singlet — for the sport. I had short legs, a long torso, and very little muscle, so my singlet stretched tightly around my inner thigh and crotch region. The straps dug tightly into my shoulder. It felt like someone had taken the soft leather pocket of a slingshot — the part where you place the projectile — pulled the elastic straight down as if preparing to shoot a pebble at a flock of high-flying game birds, and hesitated with the elastic at full stretch. All of the team's singlets were hand-me-downs, and in every singlet, there was the ghost of someone else's body. I'm sure Olympians have tailored singlets, and I imagine the fit on theirs won't be an impediment to their wrestling abilities as my singlet was to mine.
The sport of wrestling is a ready metaphor for struggle. If you are dealing with personal turmoil, you can be described as "wrestling with something." You can be "grappling with issues." In T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets," after a lyrical deluge, Eliot is left with "the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings . . . ", wondering whether his poetic efforts matter.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Rulon Gardner, an American who grew up on a Wyoming dairy farm, defeated Alexander Karelin. Karelin was the gold medal winner in Greco-Roman wrestling for the 1988, 1992, and 1996 Olympic Games. He hadn't lost a match in 13 years. They were a study in contrasts. Gardner was doughy. Baby-faced, but recognizably a man shaped by work on a farm. Karelin was chiseled. His muscular abdomen looked engineered. He had nicknames: "The Russian Bear," "Alexander the Great," "The Experiment." He had a signature move called the "Karelin Lift" where he would hoist an opponent from the mat, straight up into the air, and slam them back down to the mat. It was an uncommon move for the 130kg weight class because it required immense strength. Karelin had defeated Gardner in previous bouts, but what won the day for Gardner was his guile. He had studied "The Russian Bear's" technique and knew that elusiveness would be the key to winning the bout. And so Gardner moved. Twisted. Prevented the Russian from grabbing his singlet and executing his signature move. Because Karelin lost his grip on Rulon, he was penalized a point and thus lost the gold medal.
Imagine how long six minutes must have seemed to Gardner. Watching the clock as six minutes move achingly slow. The match actively stopping time. The agony of the body and of the mind's awareness of the body has ways of stretching minutes into hours. The long, fibrous muscles stretched taut, pulled by the arms of another.
We'd chug whole packets of sugar to gain a short speed burst prior to our matches for our "Angry Six Minutes" as our coaches called it. We'd skip meals. We'd run wind sprints or vigorously jog in place. Once, I wrapped Saran wrap around my waist, wore a thick fleece sweat suit, and ran up and down bleacher steps for 15 minutes prior to a wrestling match in order to lose a pound. Our coach gave us chewing gum and had us spit into cups to cut down our water weight. Drinking water was forbidden. Thirst was weakness but a gulp of water also meant the difference between one weight class and another. While I didn't see it or hear it firsthand, some of my teammates swore some of our other teammates were binging and purging themselves. We spent much of the wrestling season angry and faint.
When I look up from the computer screen or the notepad, the world changes. When I perform the same task of drafting a long poem, the day carries with it particular expectations, but the day is never the same. Sometimes, there's laundry. There are always dishes to be cleaned, but sometimes pans. My sons need help getting dressed. The world's chores spill from the window. So then you look back at what you've done on the screen or notepad and wonder whether it was truly enough. But the day moves forward and before I know it, the trajectory of the poem I've been chasing has veered off in another direction. The poem slides past my grasp.
The condition of a wrestler in relation to his or her opponent is governed by the condition of his or her opponent. To be a wrestler is to inflict intentional discomfort on the self for the glory of mastering one's body in relation to space. To wrestle means to encroach upon someone else's physical space, hold your position within that space for a set duration, and prevent the opponent from interfering with you as you control his or her space.
for CM, KT, and the rest
El Loco. El Gato. Fatty. The Panther. The Bullet. The Loner. Odd-woman-out. Safe-as-houses. Shot-stopper. Calamity. Golden Gloves. The Black Octopus. Butterfingers. The Oaf. Green Giant. The Outsider. El Chopo. De Muur. The Guardian. Die Katze. The Lighthouse. The Bear. Tiny. Little. Flash Lightning. Stretch Armstrong. Kamikaze. The Magician. Lone Wolf. Last Man Standing. The Stranger. Last Line of Defence. Numero Uno.
You are called any or all these names. Some are a mark of respect, some a sign of your opponents’ fears. Others are badges of shame, past errors carried into the present.
You are never simply the goalkeeper.
You don’t have to be mad to play here, so they say.
Here is a line: a point that stretches visibly across space.
Some cross themselves before beginning, some look to the heavens. For my part, I like to feel the line’s width, to tread its distance. I sidestep 12 yards right until I can touch the goalpost, jump to touch the crossbar. Turn, sidestep, repeat on the other side, so I am centered in the goal-frame. There’s safety in the line.
A line: a point that becomes visible by its edges, by what happens at each terminus. Even the prose poem is written with a sense of how the line breaks, of the white space that borders each edge. A turning, returning.
The goalkeeper has been exiled from the rest of the pitch for a forbidden desire: to play football with her hands.
She spends her days at the line-edges of being. Her existence is a study in lines, a life in rectangles not of her making: the six-yard box, where her word is nine-tenths of possession, lies inside the penalty box, where her hands conjure the course of events.
Transgress the lines of the box if you must. ’Keepers have done so and turned goal-scoring heroes. Or they have become dispossessed. To stray beyond the lines is to imply you are through with your visions, that you wish to join the mêlée.
It is all a matter of voice. You will need to throw your words as much as the ball. No one else sees where you are, what you do. Your worldview is architectonic, it superintends. You are tasked with communicating your vision to the rest of the team.
Yours is the barbarous yawp and also gentle talk, the thunderous roar and the whisper in the ear.
As Team USA beat North Korea by a goal to nil, we see little of Hope Solo (named at birth a goalkeeper). Her teammates hear from her constantly. The goalkeeper is a mynah bird. Her power lies in what she can do to others with language.
Today Poetic/Olympic Coverage continues at The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Best American Poetry. We're starting a series within the series in which we consider sports that have been and no longer are a part of the Games. We're calling them Ghost Sports and today it's baseball. Here's a moving meditation by Nick Ripatrazone and some brilliant hilarity by Peter Campion.
Foul Ball: On Baseball and Poetry
By Nick Ripatrazone
The dugouts are empty and the bats are silent: there is no baseball in the London Olympics. There will be no baseball in the 2016 Berlin games. Baseball has merged its international governing body with another spurned sport, softball, for their 2020 bid. It pains me to hear Softball Federation President Don Porter’s admission that they will try to find ways to make both sports “more attractive and interesting.”
Some major reasons for exclusion include the sport’s popularity in the Americas and Asia but more provincial following in Europe, concerns about drug testing, and the absence of Major League Baseball players. Yet a more implicit trait that appears to have doomed baseball’s chances as an Olympic sport--relatively slow, long games with moments of muted drama--is the same element that makes baseball so beautifully poetic.
Baseball, even when played in the most urban of locations, is a reminder of the pastoral. The field is geometrically pleasing: batter and catcher boxes, on-deck circles, the manicured diamond centered with the pitcher’s mound, the dirt infield and the grassed outfield, stretching to the fences. That back border is hard, but other borders, like foul lines, can be straddled and crossed. Soft grass and rough dirt can both stain bodies. The bases, though fixed onto anchors, are sometimes upended. Home plate is often buried. It is a static field in almost constant flux.
Fiction and film have romanticized the game, but poets have given the mythology further refinement and form. Marianne Moore, who threw out the first pitch of the season at Yankee Stadium in 1968, finds “excitement-- / a fever” in the unexpected nature of the game. Unlike basketball, with set hoops, and football, with end zones that must be reached like conquered land, baseball hinges on the relationship between pitcher and batter. If baseball hits bat, the ball springs, and the action follows that white blur. For a sport billed as slow and steady, the movement can be swift and erratic. In “Writing and Baseball,” Moore finds a connection between the unpredictability of both arts, and her uneven structure pushes forward the breakneck lines: a “leaping” player “snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest, / one-handing the souvenir-to-be / meant to be caught by you or me.” Moore’s witty poem is framed by her epigraph: “Suggested by post-game broadcasts.” Baseball is a game clothed in commentary from raised booths and rows of seats: a world covered in words.
Fernando Perez, the first Major League Baseball player to be published in Poetry, writes that the world of baseball is infinitely splintered and complicated. Minor league players are like itinerant bards, “slouched on a bus, watching small towns roll by matter-of-factly like stock market tickers,” even, as he quotes Ginsberg, “‘shopping for images’ in a Wal-Mart.” Perez knows that “eventually my prime will end” and baseball will “slowly break my heart.” He turns to poetry “because it is less susceptible to circumstance,” and yet he is “not especially interested in having one world endear itself to the other.” A baseball player, he wants the worlds of poetry and baseball “apart.”
That could be the ultimate draw of the sport to poets: it feels like a mythological other, a well-groomed natural world that resists the occasional simplification and nostalgia that poets wish to drape on it. Robert Creeley, Perez’s favorite poet, laments: “The one damn time (7th inning) / standing up to get a hot dog someone spills / mustard all over me.” In a sport where Babe Ruth is king, where The Pride of the Yankees inspires those who can’t stand the Bronx Bombers, hyperbole and humor equal a second reality, a pastime more game than sport. It is a game where rules are bent, where decisions of safe versus out, ball versus strike are handed down by umpires who sometimes shout, nearly mouth-to-mouth, with frustrated coaches. A game where pitchers might bean batters, where a thief of the infield--a base stealer--is praised by Robert Francis: “How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases, / Taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird, / He’s only flirting.” Only in baseball can the grand and legendary, the progressive and monumental reside next to, and perhaps thrive on, the loopy, the subversive, the angry. Such power and possibility in these names: Jackie Robinson, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Joe DiMaggio, Cecil Fielder, Pearce “What’s the Use” Chiles, Ty Cobb.
Is this not poetry? Another pursuit mistakenly thought as passive, where the careful accumulation of image can create the tender or forceful. Archibald MacLeish’s “The End of the World” is not about baseball, but in the pageantry of this particular circus, I find correlation. The best moments of baseball and poetry happen “quite unexpectedly.” The “top” blows off when, distracted by an overfilled cup of beer or a vendor screaming about peanuts, we hear the bat crack against ball, and watch it disappear into the blue. We know the ball will return, but for now it remains unseen, while it “hung over / those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes.” Even the most lackluster popup can drop, like a ton, on the grass, and what happens next is controlled chaos: coaches scream, the bench clears, the winning run on second sees the absurd possibility of home. This is the movement of poetry: like “a piece of ice on a hot stove.”
But what is that ice doing on a stove? Only Robert Frost knows, and we know he certainly loved baseball. It might have been his poultry farming background, the marriage of the pastoral and patience. He said that “nothing flatters me more than to have it assumed that I could write -- unless it be to have assumed that I once pitched a baseball with distinction.” Frost thought of baseball as a form of prowess, and saw that as its “common ground” with poetry: both had “something to achieve, something to win or lose.” In the same way we are startled by a late-inning rally, we are shaken by a poem that prodded along until a charged final couplet, and perhaps we feel guilty that we did not see the beauty all along.
An exhibition and demonstration sport since the 1904 games, medals for baseball have only been awarded in 5 Olympiads. It is unfortunate that such a storied sport is absent on the world’s athletic stage. Imagine, as poets are inclined to, the dramatic perfection of a gold medal no-hitter. Yet there is sufficient drama in a batter’s repeated foul balls as he battles against a determined pitcher on a full count, or the long, slow walk of a relief pitcher from the bullpen. The length of this game is what I find most beautiful and complex. Despite innings and outs, there is always the possibility that a baseball game could go on forever. This glimpse of the eternal is contrasted with the fear and pressure of the final out of the ninth inning. Even in the World Series, we know that these teams will live to play another day, but there is so much grace and terror in that moment before we all go our separate ways, before we take off our team’s caps and celebrate or sulk. We know that tomorrow the groundskeeper will mow lines of light and dark into the desolate outfield while summer help pull rakes along the infield. But in those tense final moments, the possibility of an eternal game can be snapped with a third strike, a caught line drive, a lazy runner picked-off at second. Calm cloaking intense drama. What else could we hope for in the world of sport?
Today Poetic/Olympic Coverage continues at The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Best American Poetry. We're starting a series within the series in which we consider sports that have been and no longer are a part of the Games. We're calling them Ghost Sports and today it's baseball. Here's a moving meditation by Nick Ripatrazone and some brilliant hilarity by Peter Campion.
BASEBALL HAS MORE GAME
I’m not disappointed that the International Olympic Committee cut baseball from the London Games. They had good reasons, for sure. In the space on their schedule left by that languorous, bucolic pastime, they added a true spectacle of athleticism—golf. In fact, there was room enough for a second sport. Here, they thought to address another problem that the inclusion of baseball had underlined, the tendency of certain sports to favor one, dominant nation. So the I.O.C. dedicated the remaining time and money to an event certain to draw the punters into cross-cultural exchange—rugby sevens.
I’m convinced the committee made the right decision. Olympic baseball always seemed a put on, anyhow, a break from the real deal, a moment of enforced mirth that quickly grew tedious, like Pajama Day at school.
And I have to admit: the rest of the Olympics has always felt to me like Pajama Day at school. Back in the summer of 2008, I tried to watch the swimming events and all I saw was splashing. In the middle of the spray were some heads, wearing these rubber skull-condoms, emblazoned with the flags of their nations. It was hard to tell if any one head was really in front. Then it was over, someone had won, some mutant with a torso as long as a Buick. The analysis and the advertisements must have cycled for hours.
I also watched the running. This was easier to follow, perhaps too easy: the figures circled the track in their slender rows, like toy figures powered from remote control. There was no competition at all because there was nothing the slightest bit dramatic: the best runner was first, the second best was second, the third best, etc. The differences between them must have been pre-determined by genetics, since each had obviously received the ultimate training, the kind of care and attention that occurs mainly in neo-natal wards and missile silos.
The Olympics began to fill me with dolor. Was this really all that athleticism came down to in its sheerest forms? Trials of endurance and capacity? Freakish feats? How much, how fast, how far?
How arbitrary! I could come up with this stuff and give it away for free. I mean, my brother once squeezed twenty five grapes into his mouth—I have the picture. No one gave him a medal. A friend of mine was skinny dipping in a Vermont pond a few years ago, when the cops showed up and started shouting through a megaphone. He had to run naked, the whole three miles to where we were staying, without being caught by the police or seen by the neighbors who were all out grilling their Oscar Mayer weiners. Now, that could make an incredible sport.
But here’s my best idea. Senior year of high school, my friends and I called ourselves “the science team” not only because of our elaborate experiments involving alcohol and THC, but also because of our dedication to finding any activity that cultivated the very best in the human spirit. And after one of our lab sessions, in the middle of a blizzard, we cruised the deserted streets of our New England town in a Ford Pinto. Whenever we found an orange traffic drum, we slammed it, head on. This required much more subtlety and skill than one might guess. Each of those traffic drums contains a sandbag, hanging from a rope inside, for ballast. When you hit a drum at optimum speed, from one exact angle, not only does the drum fly through the air, but its sandbag explodes, concluding the game with an exuberant, percussive crescendo, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov.
I am currently writing to the I.O.C. (the damn form’s around here somewhere) to recommend the inclusion of this sport in future games. It surely has the same intellectual simplicity as those other Olympic events. Personally, I think it’s more fun and entertaining. But I plan to submit my proposal for “Traffic Drum Slam Drive” in the spirit of diplomatic compromise. You see, having reached adulthood, I myself now prefer baseball. But you just can’t include a game like baseball in the Olympics. It’s too much too fast for those who enjoy the cruder fare provided by the Olympics.
It’s not only that scientists have proven there’s no athletic skill more difficult than hitting a baseball pitched at full speed. Indeed, such a display of talent might embarrass the frantic paddlers of men’s double canoeing or the hefty heavers of shot put—those human boulders who twirl and twitch in circles, with their hands scrunched to their necks like people in serious need of neurological treatment. No, it’s more that baseball has so many elements, intertwining in endless combinations. As if that weren’t enough, a whole other, intricate world lies beneath the surface of baseball. I mean the subjective, dream life that each fan brings to the game, so that the sport takes on a kind of collective unconscious, weaving around the central storyline. In this regard, following baseball resembles the pleasure of reading “difficult” poems or novels. And it would be inappropriate, slightly cruel even, to expect fans of the Olympics instantly to rise to this level of attentiveness—as if, when my infant daughter cried in her crib, I decided to read aloud fifty pages of The Princess Cassamassima instead of changing her diaper.
Maybe there’s hope, though. During the last few weeks, as all the Olympic previews and promos have popped across my television and computer screens, appearing with the mindless pomp and ridiculous solemnity of a Katy Perry video directed by Leni Reifenstahl—I have developed another modest proposal to bring baseball to the world. I’ve based my plans on my years of experience teaching poetry. So many intelligent students are intimidated poetry. They suspect hidden meanings everywhere, as if the poems meant to single them out and humiliate them—like Belgian waiters spitting in their bisque. I’ve learned to allay such fears by acting as a language teacher of sorts, by having my students concentrate on those simple formal features that are right there on the page. We consider them one at a time: voice, line, syntax, tone, plot, stanza. T his approach seems to work. And I think we could do something similar with baseball: we could break baseball down into small component parts, such as running from home plate to first, or diving for pop-ups.
Each of these tasks could become an Olympic exhibition sport until players and viewers, like new speakers of some foreign tongue, slowly caught on and integrated their knowledge of the separate activities. We really could pick any aspect of baseball—even spitting your tobacco juice the farthest, even pulling at your crotch as extravagantly as possible. (Having lived in Italy for a year, I’m positive this last event will find many foreign adherents.) Any of these endeavors has got to be as thrilling as such official Olympic feats as lifting metal discs while grunting, or throwing a pointy stick at a field, or thwocking a stone across a long sheet of ice with a broom. (That one may be in the Winter Olympics, but who the Hell knows.)
What do you say? I need some collaborators on this project. I myself am going to be useless during the next few days. You guessed it: the Red Sox are playing the Yankees in the Bronx, and Pedroia’s back, Baby!
Today The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Best American Poetry bring you Olympic coverage of Long Distance Swimming by Jake Adam York and Tennis by Matthea Harvey.
The 1500-Meter Freestyle (and The Long Poem)
By Jake Adam York
This hasn’t happened yet. You won’t see this until Saturday, until Sunday, because you, like a swimmer, have to warm up to this, to build the capacity for endurance, from the gasp of the 100M freestyle (47 seconds or less) to a race that will last more than 14 minutes.
When the buzzers sound, there will be almost a mile of water ahead of the swimmers, 30 laps in a 50-meter pool—a “metric mile.” Most of the short events will be done. You will be ready to watch this. Anything longer is either beyond the threshold of human attention
or so far beyond the threshold of human endeavor there wouldn’t be enough people to have a meaningful race. There aren’t many people who do this, who want to or can, and, it would seem, not many people who will watch this.
I trained for this event, unknowingly, my entire
high-school swimming career but only once swam it competitively, in an exhibition heat at a YMCA Tri-State meet, in the Spring of 1989, the first time there were enough swimmers interested in this length. I would have given every 200M butterfly ribbon over for another chance at this. And another.
This is not a sprint. But it’s also not exactly not a sprint. You can’t keep a short-sprint pace for this length of time, but you have to open hot and finish hot. You need to be able to settle in, in the middle, and save something for the end.
The World Record for the 100M Freestyle is 46.91. Using the Haskell scale, this is 47 seconds at a heartrate of 180-200 beats per minute. If this could be extended linearly, someone could complete the 1500M in 11:43. But this is impossible.
The physiological problem is this: after four minutes
of maximum effort, four minutes of anaerobic work, the muscles generate enough lactate to begin choking themselves. Falling back into aerobic effort allows the muscles to move off this waste.
The 1500M World Record is 14:34.14 — a pace of 58.267 seconds per 100M, 25% slower than the 100M World Record pace. The difference, of 12 seconds per 100M, is a graph of the lactate threshold, the moment of acidosis, when your effort creates more lactate than your blood can move.
The whole race has the swimmer right on that line between the aerobic and the anaerobic, right on the lactate threshold, ready to move into high burn in the final laps.
Part of what you’re learning to do in any sport is how to manage your body. In the 1500,
you work in the upper end of the aerobic, learning almost to give too much.
Or how, after a visit to an osteopath, to manage the slow curving of my spine that’s begun to show in the x-rays. The therapists say swimming’s a good way to take some stress off
the skeleton, build the muscles that can keep me from getting more crooked, so what began extracurricular becomes more serious, a way to avoid the brace or the spinal rod.
Like Johnny Weissmuller swimming against his polio, I look for ways to spend more and more time in the water.
Now you’re over 500 meters in, beyond the distance of the other Olympic events. Yes, you can hold a sprint, or near-sprint, for 500 meters. But after that, you’ve got to back off. This is the middle of the race. You’re cruising, but you’re also holding back—moving yet waiting.
This is where you have to concentrate. Because all these laps can come to seem alike. You’re looking out ahead of yourself. You can see your arms, your hands, but not much else. At times, the flicker of a competitor in the periphery, but mostly lane-lines. The world is noise.
And therefore quiet. This is where you have to concentrate, making time meaningful as you’re trying to beat time. You move by memory, recreating the beat of a Roland 808 or a heavy-metal drummer in your ears, your legs. The more BPMs, the better. Planet Rock or South of Heaven.
You’ve memorized lyrics that in any other context will seem insipid (because they are), but this is your soundtrack, your rhythm.
Iron Maiden’s “The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner”:
Keep the pace, hold the race
Your mind is getting clearer
You're over halfway there
But the miles they never seem
As if you're in a dream
Not getting anywhere…
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the eddies of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head, he strikes out with courageous arms, he urges himself with his legs,
I see his white body, I see his undaunted eyes…
This is how you keep from losing it in the whiteness of the white noise.
You write your own raps, lyrics, poems. With each race, you remember more words, write more.
Moby-Dick might have been written by a long-distance swimmer.
If the event were long enough.
Here’s where swimming becomes concentration. In a non-Olympic meet, a red board will be inserted into the water to alert the swimmer that this is the last length, but you’ll want to know where you are long before that, so you can pace yourself.
You need to be able to finish hot, too, to kick it in, to dig, to bring the pain, to even up, to ensure you never get too far behind, to keep everybody in evening distance, which means going anaerobic, then falling back, gauging, re-gauging, counting, re-counting, 170 BPM, 180.
At age 39, I can’t swim this way any longer, but when I’m writing, I feel this way: the world is all noise: the poem has to have a length, an end, a proportionality: the world is all quiet: I am touching all the thresholds of exhaustion: I want more.
Endurance conditioning was, then, training for writing long (or longer) poems: creating enough moment up front to get the poem (and the reader) into the development of a gesture both delicate (threshold) and durable, seemingly overwhelming but finally proportional, large enough to get lost for a time in another time.
You might lose the count, forget where you are, like this year’s second-seed US 1500-metrist, Connor Jaeger, at the national trials. In the final approach, instead of reaching for the wall, he turned, ready for another lap, losing a fraction of a second in the tumble. “I just kept swimming,”
he said, having lost the count. “I didn’t want to risk it.”
What came before, what came after? Where am I?
Did I begin swimming before my scoliosis diagnosis or after?
What year did I swim the 1500? Where are all my ribbons, my records?
Can I retrace my strokes?
These meltdowns happen. You lose the count. You lose some energy, some concentration trying to get it back. You push back over the threshold too soon, and the poem begins to fall apart. You got lost in the warble of a Kerry King guitar solo, tertiary motifs, Bambaataa’s bonus beats.
Analogy on analogy. George Breen, 1956 Olympics, Melbourne. Breen had broken the World Record by 8 seconds in the preliminaries, so he was a favorite. He was swimming against Australia’s Murray Rose, with whom Breen was trading record times. Breen got out to an early lead, but Rose broke free
with only 400 meters to go and Breen never caught up. Even Japan’s Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, who’d lurked behind, overtook Breen for the Silver. You’re focused on a space ahead of you, a time far ahead. You don’t always catch the periphery, the wake of your competitor on the turn, you
may have burned more than you thought in the opening, failed to save enough for the end, may have swam to close to the lactate threshold, a hair over the line, and now, though your mind wants to call up more, the muscles can’t give any more. There isn’t enough
oxygen to make happen what you want to happen. If this were a trial, there would be time to revise, to reconsider, to get the approach to the final right, to manage the poem’s investments and disbursements, freeing the muscle from the purses of the arms at such critical moments.
If you were doing it again, you’d already be back in sprint by now, ready to pour power on power for the final hundred, that last turn, that last trope, the one that will finish and win memorably, persistently, burning itself into safety film or anthologies or instant-replay DVR recordings.
This is when someone should put a sign in the pool, but in Olympic events, this doesn’t happen. A horn is sounded, but you may not hear the horn. This is where you must concentrate, where you must have been concentrating, past, past-perfect, present, and future coordinated, all this time,
all this effort seeming now as prelude and as cause and as prolepsis and proleptic expression of this moment, the final gesture, the resolution, successful if measured, if anticipated, if the anticipation and the realization seem to create one another, to make the time and the distance into a unit.
Such that even after the water has dried from behind the ears, even after the wish of pages is memory rather than event, memory is event, the motion, the poem in your body. This hasn’t happened yet. This is already happening. Is always, noise and quiet. Is everything. Is one.
Can the Spider (Murray) Upset Twinkletoes’ (Federer) Apple Cart?
by Matthea Harvey
Ever since Robert Frost said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down,” tennis and poetry have been locked in an embrace. Is it a forced embrace, like Scottish Andy Murray and the British public, or are they actually the perfect pair—the identical Bryan brothers doing their signature chest-bump or a tennis racket strung with half gut half synthetic strings? For the last six years I’d claimed to be “sort of working on a poem” while watching tennis, a poem that progressed at the conveniently glacial rate of approximately two lines per year. Last year I had to admit that the poem was finished (http://www.loadedbicycle.com/harveyandtunis.html), and then, like the perfect arcing lob, this essay assignment arrived. A hundred hours of tennis watching later, there’s certainly a case to be made that watching tennis without the poetic tropes of simile and metaphor, is no way to watch tennis at all. And, whether they’re aware of it or not, when the commentators are excited about a match, they hit these tropes hard.
My poetry antennae first perked up when I heard Brad Gilbert say of David Ferrer— with the kind of relish that most people reserve for the arrival of a bacon cheeseburger—“The little beast is diggin’ in!” In tennis circles, Gilbert is famous for his nicknames, calling Novak Djokovic “The Joker,” Maria Sharapova “Shazza” and Ivo Karlovic “Dr. Ivo.” When this year’s American breakout star Brian Baker appeared (after a long absence due to injuries), it didn’t feel as if he’d fully arrived until Gilbert christened him “Baker’s Dozen” and John McEnroe, in a rather muddled but delightful metaphor, opined of his run at Wimbledon, “He’s gotta be loving this—talk about icing on the cake that wasn’t fully baked for Baker.”
David Foster Wallace (who as far as I know, was never asked to “call” a match, but oh he should have been) was a master of both metaphor and simile. In his famous essay for The New York Times, “Federer as Religious Experience,” he wrote: “Wimbledon is strange. Verily it is the game’s Mecca, the cathedral of tennis; but it would be easier to sustain the appropriate level of on-site veneration if the tournament weren’t so intent on reminding you over and over that it’s the cathedral of tennis. There’s a peculiar mix of stodgy self-satisfaction and relentless self-promotion and branding. It’s a bit like the sort of authority figure whose office wall has every last plaque, diploma, and award he’s ever gotten, and every time you come into the office you’re forced to look at the wall and say something to indicate that you’re impressed.”
That’s the kind of simile there’s no time for when you’re calling a match, unless you’re Mats Wilander calling the final of the Australian open this year: “Well, it’s Australia day today and Roger Federer was having a big party at his house and he’s got two huge security guards outside to not let Nadal in and he punched them both out with one left hook, and he’s standing knocking at the door and Federer is now diminished into a little little little guy and Nadal, he’s just pushed past, ‘Out the way. Move over, I’m gonna have a beer, mate—out of your fridge.’”
This kind of extended metaphor is a rarity—usually the comments fly by like an Isner ace—but occasionally the commentators get into a game of verbal tennis themselves. Here’s a quick point from this year’s French Open final:
Ted Robinson: This first thirteen minutes is a significant Nadal opening statement. The jury may already be convinced.
John McEnroe: Case almost closed.
Here match as court case is the vehicle, one that Serena Williams concurred with in a leaked rap recording, “My name is Serena, on the court I serve them up, no subpoena!” I enjoy it when the players get poetic. Take this transformed cliché from Andy Roddick on losing the 2004 Wimbledon final to Federer, “I threw the kitchen sink at him but he went to the bathroom and got his tub.” Or this, from tennis great Virginia Wade, “It's difficult for most people to imagine the creative process in tennis. Seemingly it's just an athletic matter of hitting the ball consistently well within the boundaries of the court. That analysis is just as specious as thinking that the difficulty in portraying King Lear on stage is learning all the lines.” These are moments when the players—who we spend so much time analyzing, projecting our ideas onto—are really trying to tell us what it is like for them.
Why do the commentators and the players turn to similes and metaphors so often? Why do poets? Again, David Foster Wallace: “You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.” Having Serena Williams say, “I played amazing,” is true, but not memorable, whereas Maria Sharapova’s description of herself playing on clay as “a cow on ice” was so deeply evocative (because not despite the fact that she is decidedly not a cow and court surface is clay, not ice) that it has been repeated ever since. Indeed after winning this year’s French Open, her metaphor showed up in many of the headlines, such as “The Cow on Ice becomes Queen of Clay.”
Over the past six months, I’ve heard herds of comments in which the commentators compared tennis players to animals, a comparison that was made hilariously tangible in the popular blog, Capybaras That Look Like Rafael Nadal, http://capybarasthatlooklikerafaelnadal.tumblr.com/), which is worth a look, given its insanely high quotient of cuteness (I happen to adore capybaras and Rafa, who is sadly absent from the 2012 Olympics due to a knee injury). In my informal tallying, cats took their rightful spot in the animal pecking order—on top. There were heaps of references to “playing cat and mouse” and “pouncing on a serve” and even an implied cat via implied hairball: “In the end it’s Djokovic who coughs up the error.” I counted that as “cat metaphor,” but for balance, comments about “unleashing the forehand” as well as “he’s in no mood to roll over” and “got the yips on her serve” (am I willfully misinterpreting here when I picture a miniature malevolent Chihuahua perched on the racket?) were filed under “dog.” And I can’t help but mention Roddick’s appearance on the Ellen show, on which, when asked about his fast serve, he quipped, “My serve has killed a small dog… I’m joking, I’m joking! The dog was huge!” Federer, on the other hand, is frequently compared to that most graceful creature, the gazelle. Only Andy Murray and Giles Simon had the dubious honor of being compared to insects: “Murray has spun his web”[Ted Robinson] and “This is why this guy [Giles Simon] is crafty and cool, he’s number twelve in the world. He’s like a gnat or a mosquito—just keeps at it.” This Wednesday, Justin Gimbelstob made the first marine reference I’d heard, “Hewitt’s a shark, always hunting, always moving—sharks never rest or sleep.”
Other categories of comparisons highlight some of our other human obsessions—food, war, money, machines, and other sports. Here, a few favorites:
Food: “A wonderful meaty blow,” “That shot had a little bit of additional mustard,” “first double bagel served up [a match where the score is 6-0 6-0] and “Murray feasting on Niemenen’s serve.”
War: “She needs to develop more weapons,” and “The guy is an absolute warrior.”
Money: “That’s a serve that could pay some serious dividends” and “sent that back with interest.”
Transportation: It’s been one way traffic ever since,” and “He righted the ship there after a dicey first set.”
Other sports: “The second serve is batting practice, especially on this side” and “you can see he’s got that look—he’s on the edge… he’s been knocked into the ropes already…”
Machines: “The radar just slightly off on the forehand” and “he’s like a buzz-saw, Nadal.”
Justin Gimelstob is the only commentator I heard actually refer to these parts of speech which are used so frequently. This week he described Stanislaw Wawrinka’s playing style, “the metaphor is the windshield wiper. He’s not linear…” Gimelstob (who is one of four calling the early rounds of Olympic tennis) is infamous for his horrendously misogynist comments in 2008 which I will not reproduce here, and was dropped (briefly) by the Tennis Channel this March, because of this tweeted simile, “The Djokovic drop shot right now is a bigger bailout than Obama's fiscal plan, with comparable results, failure." His apology, “I wasn’t conscious of the power of words,” doesn’t ring particularly true, given a didactic I-am-a-human-dictionary (via Wikipedia, it seems) exchange with Brett Haber I heard this Saturday:
JG: “Federer plays with such relaxed calm, so much true confidence. The best word to describe it? Sprezzatura.”
BH: “God bless you? All right, you’ve gone full Roget’s Thesaurus on me. Sprezzatura? Would you please use it in a sentence?”
JG: Roger Federer plays with absolute sprezzatura—the art of perfecting the nonchalance, concealing all art and making whatever one does, says, appear to be without effort, and almost without any thought about it. Roger Federer synonymous with sprezzatura.“
I’d say Gimelstob wields his words with “the precision of a surgeon,” to use a quote from the man himself (albeit describing Djokovic). He knew exactly what he was doing: casually slipping his politics into a simile sandwich.
A few weeks ago, I woke up from a dream in which I was standing in the middle of a tennis court and hundreds of tennis balls were falling from the sky all around me, making a storm of thuds. A bodiless voice asked me, “Why is your heart beating so fast?” Why indeed? Why does my heart beat faster as I watch a fellow human “move about a hard rectangle and seeks to ambush a fuzzy ball with a modified snow-shoe” (as Eliot Chaze put it so succinctly…)? Maybe because I fell in love with language and tennis around the same time, as a six-year-old in England. Watching Wimbledon on television was a parent-sanctioned form of laziness as was watching the Wombles (who happened to live in Wimbledon), furry creatures who recycled human garbage, and whose theme song, “Underground, overground, wombling free / The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we…” I loved to sing that song. I still delight in the song’s rhyme and I remember the thrill of the word “womble” morphing into a verb.
Wimbledon has always had a more explicit relationship to poetry than most sports venues. Excerpts from Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; / If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same” )are engraved above the entrance to Centre Court. In 2010, they appointed Matt Harvey as Wimbledon Championships Poet (seeing this, I felt that the trajectory of my life could have been different—if I’d been born a boy and stayed in England, could that have been me?) The other Harvey’s comic verses can be found here: http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/wimbledon/arc. I particularly enjoy the rhyme in the conclusion to “Wimbledon Dreams”: “So many dreamers, with a common theme: / fame, prizes, praise, etcetera etcetera... // (But one will wake and still be Roger Federer” and the perspective in section four of “Umpirical Observations”: ”[the umpire] sits for hours in the sun / in that high chair / yet is the only one /who never throws a tantrum.”
Now, as I watch the Olympic tennis from across the ocean, I’m attending the matches with both eye and ear, marveling at impossible shots, enjoying the iambic thump of the ball going back and forth, and listening for flashes of poetry from the commentators. I particularly enjoy the similes and metaphors that aren’t immediately clear unless you’re watching: “He babied that over. [negative—John McEnroe on Djokovic]” “Zakopalova airmails that return” [it goes long—Chris Fowler] and “Serena Williams versus Jelena Jankovic—one of the popcorn matches today [positive—Brett Haber].”
My favorite images from the opening ceremony were the little clouds on strings, which brought to mind McEnroe’s comment, “Federer seems to float above the court.” Federer as cloud? Why not!? We (poets, sports fans, commentators, players) use poetry’s tools to sharpen or complicate how we see the world. Poetry lifts us up, lets us see things with fresh eyes, as does watching our fellow humans engaged in what could be called a battle, a court case or a work of art.
For more Poetic/Olympic Coverage join us over at The Los Angeles Review of Books.
The Handoff: On Track and Field and The Poem
The relay, at heart, is about conveyance. The body trained as a vessel. Handing off—often blindly and so seamlessly we hardly notice the moment of transfer—is the point. Perhaps that's why there seems to be less glory in it than in other events. What is carried and passed on is what matters most. Dropping the baton is the worst thing that can happen. Worse even than finishing last. I suppose that's why, as a poet, I feel rather sentimental about the relay. And why its plain-faced lessons never fail to frustrate me. It doggedly insists that we concern ourselves with the prosaic mechanics of what and how and why and to whom we seek to convey. You know, the fundamentals. A reminder of the impetus of our drive as writers: to train our bodies as vessels.
The relay, at heart, is suffused with a juxtapositional tension. It requires both the solitary task and the delicately choreographed connection to another. Not quite a conventional team sport, certainly not an individual event, the relay showcases solitary striving in relation to a succession of other lone attempts. And isn’t that what writing is, after all? The relay is, as the name suggests, relational, and not just because it puts the body in contact with other bodies but because of the ways it positions the self in relation to what precedes it and what follows. In relation to history. "Truth be told, I do not want to forget," Trethewey writes. It's sort of how I feel when I'm writing in received forms. Endeavoring alone in a long and ongoing line of tradition. Only I'm never at the end of the line, never the last runner, but somewhere in the middle, where those of us who clock a slower pace are often positioned. Struggling simply not to lose ground.
It wasn't supposed to be hard. American women's basketball team has won gold at every Olympics since Atlanta in 1996, where U.S. success — anticipated and then realized — helped to launch the WNBA. The W, in turn — though teams come and go — remains the world's best showcase for professional women's basketball: this year's U.S. team had nothing but WNBA all-stars, including the three best scorers in the league, its strongest pure low-post player, and its two best point guards. The volatile, exuberant Diana Taurasi can score from anywhere on the court, and dominate almost anybody one on one, as long as she doesn't foul out; Seimone Augustus has cultivated what might be the purest, most beautiful jump shot in the history of the women's game, with Maya Moore's two- and three-point arc close behind. Sylvia Fowles, whose musculature reminds me of several comic-book superheroes, can hold a position like nobody else, and elevate like a military helicopter. As for the point guards, the players (often shorter than all the others) who bring the ball up the court and often control the flow of the game: Sue Bird has a legion of imitators for good reason, and Lindsay Whalen seems to have jet thrusters in her sneakers, the ability to pass through solid objects (e.g. defenders), and eyes in the back of her head.
For Part 1 of the "We Can Be Heroes" Olympics series, click here
Today was Boxing Day over at The Los Angeles Review of Books Poetic Olympic Section.
Here are pieces by Pat Rosal, Ross Gay and Jennifer Grotz.
Hagler-Leonard and the Limits of Speech
Ross Gay and Patrick Rosal
On April 6, 1987 Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler fought, the only matchup that hadn’t happened among the era’s pantheon of boxers that include Thomas The Hitman Hearns and Robert Duran. Hagler was the puncher, known as a bruiser. Leonard was the graceful, and even extravagant, boxer.
Young men—particularly—young men of color around the country watched this fight on television. For many of them, the bout figured prominently in forming their attitudes about what it means to be a man, what it means to be with or without a way to speak up, what it means to be something that’s not not, what it means to bruise, and what it means to be gracefully evasive. Two of those young men became poets.
[A round of boxing is also known as a stanza. In boxing, the stanza is no place to rest.]
In the memory all I see is my father, a tray of re-heated food on his lap, his feet in black polyester socks moving like two seals. He’s home from some long day at Roy Rogers on Cottman, the water glass full of rum and mix swirling before he sips it. His bald head. The black birthmark on his left temple pulsing when he chews.
My father’s head moving just so, the neck jutting the jaw and chin this was and that while his fork moves through air, occasionally a tiny “ooh” or “there you go.”
Hagler lowers his chin and walks ahead, trying to clip short the angles of Leonard’s slick dance. Marvin is pushing the action. That’s what he’s known for—walking the other fighter down. Pressure. Moving forward.
Look more closely.
Many of Hagler’s best punches connect—not from bulldozing through Leonard’s guard—but by Hagler’s occasional, subtle, and almost imperceptible retreat.
Leonard’s footwork makes him hard to catch in the first two rounds, like a quick shifting wind. But Hagler switches from conventional stance to his natural southpaw in the third.
By the fifth round, Leonard is already showing real signs of fatigue (he has fought most of his career at or below 147 lbs., a full weight class lower).
[The word stanza comes from the Italian meaning “resting place”.]
To get a quick breath, Leonard stops, leans forehead-to-forehead against the solid, broad-bodied Hagler.
Notice: Hagler, with his lead foot, takes one bit step back, which makes a small gap between the fighters.
Here, Leonard, still leaning, falls into where the other boxer’s body used to be. With :28 left in the fifth, Hagler fills the rift with a nasty right uppercut. It connects—hurts Leonard.
I am not the first poet to fall in love with boxing. References to pugilism go back to Homer, but the English Romantic poets in particular took great interest in the sport, as have various literati from Melville to Mailer. Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway, as well as T. S. Eliot and Lord Byron, in particular, participated in the sport; others, such as John Clare, were avid spectators.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.