Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Poet Chokes in the 9th Inning

In theory I ought to like Alan Michael Parker's poem "I Have Been Given a Baseball..." more than I do because it exhibits traits I find appealing and find not often enough; straight, unpretentious language, a knowing details about a world we might recognize from our own experience, and a deft hand of knowing when to give the details and when to hold back, to let mood and substance fill in those details that plain narrative facts cannot express. Still, Parker's poem leaves me with that after taste one might associate with Sharps or Odouls or some other fake beer they might deign to sample and find themselves having to comment on what the faux ale tasted like. Gamy, I'd say, no pun intended. You can taste the resemblance to actual lager, but what you take away is how the simulation jumped the rails and gave you a cotton tongue and a mouth that felt like it had a long drink of your mom's shampoo. Similarly, Parker's piece reads like a poem and does it's paces very well--pause, sit, speak, roll over, go abstract, give a glimpse of something comprehensible, now conclude, wistfully, whispering--but I can't get over the gutlessness of the enterprise.

The problem might being with the subject itself, baseball and it's relation to the collective consciousness of how we'd like to regard ourselves; so much has been made of this over the century, supported, amended, expanded, contracted, with limitless layers of irony and outrage that one is hard pressed to name a particular emotion or dramatic trope that hasn't through baseball's diamond-formed symbolism. The sheer attraction of the game, how it appeals to the perceived American virtues of openness and fair play and playing by the rules, that agenda after agenda, attitude after attitude have been pushed through it's fabled fields in the order of making a point, of laying out how great we are or how debased we have become. There's not much chance of using baseball again as a means to underscore points of pain of injustice or unspoken joy without having one's poetic feet snap the worm-eaten structure on which this mythology lies. Parker, though, is game and gives it a try, lowering his sights smartly enough , to a set of hieroglyphs mysteriously set in front of him, the base ball of the title

emblazoned with a map
of the New York City subways,

a novelty item complete with the violet
No. 7 line, the train that clatters out to Shea.
Too often in the '70s in the rain

I saw the Mets lose there,
among anonymous fans
under orange and blue umbrellas

or the occasional grocery bag.


There is splendid compression here, wonderful enjambment of details, a rush of words of someone speaking in a hurry, bringing us to their concern in the mid thought; the way these opening stanzas first describe the map sketched on the ball (smartly omitting how the author came to be given the object) dissolves into local New York history. This is the stammer and stream of a local who has shared in the accumulated heartache and rage of being a Mets fan. Parker echoes on of the ongoing themes of Don DeLillo's novel Underworld, which follows the trading of a particular baseball that his passed along father to son, son to collector, that is reputed to have been the ball that was knocked out the Park during a crucial baseball game, "the shot heard around the world". There is no documentation to authenticate the claims of historical significance by the sellers, but what becomes more important aren't traceable facts and measurable evidence but instead the selling itself, the story telling that goes with the baseball, the language that seduces one into believing that this is indeed the baseball that was the decisive factor in the critical game, and that it radiates its genuine , extra material attributes; the buyers want this ball to be there connection to a time when baseball was played when America and Americans were good and open, playing by the rules. Parker has his character recall his own game where so much depended on the quality of a play the Mets would make that he is moved toward a slight bit of charity when he recalls a woman who's son had taken ill and died:

There's a woman I know now
whose son has died:

she should have the ball.
In the stadium this evening
the anonymous fans are hiding

under orange and blue umbrellas
or the occasional grocery bag,
and I can see her son

happy there, at last,
fidgety in the bleachers.
The lights light up the field

perfectly in the buggy, humid night—
it's like being inside a pretty thought.
When the small, sodden crowd—

are they angels?—
begins to chant Let's Go Mets,
someone changes the chant to Let's Go Home.

This is where I get the real sense that Parker had lost interest in the poem and turned instead to a scenario that could have been cribbed from the limitless number of baseball scripts that have gone unproduced over the last twenty what was effective, telegraphing compression at the start, careening nicely with a sauntering swagger that gave off a sense of big hand gestures moving about to emphasize finer points, or a detail of a dint upon a type of car or baseball hide being described, turns into a crammed last segment you get on Law and Order. This affair has to be ended now, let me out of here, get out of the way! On Law and Order they've taken to having someone get shot to death in the courtroom , the court building or in the hotel room where Police were stashing a People's witness as a means to resolve what dramatic problems they've set up for themselves when the clock urges them to quit finessing the details and to sew it all up, no matter how irrational or how ugly it becomes. Parker's narrator is motivated to hand the ball to the mother for reasons undisclosed, with the results being likewise sidestepped because the poet has discovered the writer's favorite trapdoor from a corner they've painted themselves into: ambiguity saves the day:

What would she do with the ball?
Whatever she wants,
whatever we do with anything.
This is the effect of the poet sneezing at a crucial moment, turning his head to think of something else, mentally balancing his checkbook in the middle of delivering a simile. Parker wants us to use our own powers of streaming, steaming metaphor to read in all sorts of implications , invisible and unverifiable, that this cheat of an ending might signify, but what this evokes for me is a sight of a man walking away from an accident he caused. There is no meaning here beyond the disorderly exit of the last verses other than Parker hit the exits before this ball game was over.