Friday, October 07, 2005

Ad Hockey

Well, the NHL has finally gotten its act back together, and the hockey season has started, not that I'll be able to see any of it for a while (at least not without begging local barkeeps to locate the Outdoor Life Network). Still, there's a certain puck-happy feeling in the Sacramento air, for some reason, so I've decided to post two hockey poems in celebration. The first is a fairly straightforward account of what it's like to play goalie (though of course it's also about writing poetry, in a sense):

Tending Goal

To keep emptiness immaculate,
I practice an old and reactive art.
This frame is solid, webbed and ready
to take whatever my selfish body
will not smother, absorb or deflect.

I crouch on tiptoe, turning my back
on what I protect, assessing the streak
and sinew of play, the likelihood
of facing an as yet invisible shot,
cramped in the moment’s crowded, tense
uncertainty— sometimes my stance
is justified, sometimes erased
by chance or intention’s quick release.

The best is when I’m already down
and in danger of letting a weak one in
on a negligent rebound— I offer my hands,
my face, my chest, I invite the wounds
instead of the guilty ghostliness
of goalies, their untouched irrelevance.

I ask for the unintended gift
of inaccurate desire— the long shift
drawing to its natural close

with a point-blank effort, a drive to the glove
hand side, high enough for me to wave
at it, flag it down, hold it, make the lucky
save even better with a snatch and a look
at the fruit that even bad netminders pluck
every now and then.
But this garden, the game
cannot go on if I don’t give my charmed
and tarnished prize back, straighten up and turn
to what was missed— this form, still aligned
with the crease in the mind to which all my dreams tend.

Yes, I get a bit self-conscious at the end there, and slip in a justification for my formalist leanings. But think about it: all games have their rules, and why shouldn't poetry derive its pleasures in the same way? All right, that's enough. I hope you enjoyed the experiential side of the piece, before the medicine went down.

The second one is much more abstract and ambitious; it's an attempt to use hockey to offer my Canadian version of what Tim Kahl (aka Victor Schnickelfritz) calls The American Myth. It's about the brain drain, the hockey drain, the lost hockey season of 2004-5, and the greatest player ever to lace them up. Excuse the clichés, they're part of the pleasure of sports for me too.

Gretzky in Exile

Driveways, drained pools, parking lots,
church gymnasia, tennis courts,
sunken playgrounds, dead-end streets,

bunker-basements, backyard rinks—
the sport that sends us up the snowbank
into the ditch, that stretches the length

of the neighborhood, makes these places ours.
The sponsoring world sees its new garage doors
spotted and dented. The caged crowd roars.

The semi-official national game
is its own invasion, the training ground
for mercenaries, eminent domain

in a country conquered, reclaimed and now free
to follow this ritual anarchy.
It sends its warriors out, not to die

but to fight for a rebound, cleanly but hard,
till the final minutes of a lopsided hour
when anything goes. Our border’s ajar

like a penalty box waiting for the returns
of the hard-nosed goalscorers, skilful goons
and crafty veterans nobody owns

anymore. This arena’s horizon extends
as far as the referee’s whistle resounds,
and as long as it takes to step out of bounds

or stray offside. If we do leave,
we carry the play to the people we love
however belatedly they may arrive

at our sanctuary, our testing place.
This is the wound we know we must nurse
with fiercer pride the longer we chase

a final cure. When we lose, our own blood
deserts us. It hurts to be this good
and not always the best. If there were hockey gods

they would keep us together, demand that the rest
of the world try to beat us here, on our home ice,
but we can’t wait around for that breakaway pass,

so we colonize the world with the game
that transforms us. Spaces that keep us young
with their lucky limits, their structured time,

these curbs and obstacles, gaps and slopes,
are worn spots where private fantasy slips
into common dreams. Every phenom escapes.

In writing this one, I asked myself: if W.H. Auden were alive and a hockey fan, how would he approach the subject? Well, not really, but maybe I was looking for that kind of sophisticated-yet-innocent tone you get in middle Auden.

So I'm looking for comments, of course, but also suggestions for other great sports/hockey poems. I myself can recommend Steven (Stephen?) Scriber's "All-Star Poet," despite its title. It's very earthy hockey writing, and very anecdotal. More like highly compressed stories than full-dress poems, but well suited to its subject.