October 31, 2019

World Series Champions

My Dad and I have been going to baseball games together for a long time. Long enough that my early memories are of driving up to Baltimore, parking on the other side of the train tracks and walking to Camden Yards, and coming back to find the pennies we'd left smushed by the passing trains. I saw three Ripkens on the field at once. I was there when Cal tied Lou Gehrig's streak of playing in 2,130 games straight. 

When the Nationals first came around in 2005, I didn't know how to calibrate my loyalties. They won me over one game at a time--even the ones they lost. My husband and I watched forlorn in a Memphis bar, surrounded by cheering Redbird fans, as the Cardinals took Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.

In 2015, when we moved to Southwest, going to a game became a quick walk over to the stadium. Baseball became embedded in the texture of getting to know our new neighborhood. Sometimes I headed over for just a few sunny innings, and sometimes I settled in for the long haul on a breezy night. Ryan Zimmerman! Denard Span! Gio Gonz├ílez! Wilson Ramos! Even Jason Werth, who wears the beard of an artisanal soap-maker! Max Scherzer seemed to ignite us. I'd never seen so many strikeouts. The day my husband took his friend to see a game, Max pitched a no-hitter. 

All of this is to say: I love baseball. I love baseball for the very specific place it holds in the otherwise relentless life of someone who is not very good at slowing down or relaxing. I love the indulgence of getting a beer and french fries with barbecue sauce. I love the talking with my dad or the not-talking. I love singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." I love that Anthony Rendon sits on our liquor shelf in a garden-gnome incarnation. I love the season seats we've had for some years now in Section 314, and their view of the field. I love that we're a dorky city with a (slightly) dorky team that runs the presidents midway through the fourth inning. When I think of moving, it's one of the utterly irreplaceable things that has kept me in DC. 

When my dad surprised me with the news that he'd been able to snag tickets for Game 3 of the National League Championship, I didn't know what say other than "Yes yes yes thank you yes." We raised our rally towels high. And when Zimmerman, our guy since 2005 (and in many ways, before that, since he's of UVA and Virginia-Beach born), hit a home run in his first at-bat of the World Series, the first home run for any National in the Series, it felt (for the briefest of moments) like all was right and just in the universe. 

Watching Games 3, 4, and 5 from the road was agonizing--I was in Mississippi, my dad was in Hawaii. One loss, we could handle; two we got nervous. Then having to pull Scherzer took the wind out of us. But Game 6 fanned a spark of hope. Not knowing whether we'd win or lose, I shared this poem with my students at American University last night~


for John Limon

The game of baseball is not a metaphor   
and I know it’s not really life.   
The chalky green diamond, the lovely   
dusty brown lanes I see from airplanes   
multiplying around the cities   
are only neat playing fields.   
Their structure is not the frame   
of history carved out of forest,   
that is not what I see on my ascent.

And down in the stadium,
the veteran catcher guiding the young   
pitcher through the innings, the line   
of concentration between them,   
that delicate filament is not   
like the way you are helping me,   
only it reminds me when I strain   
for analogies, the way a rookie strains   
for perfection, and the veteran,   
in his wisdom, seems to promise it,   
it glows from his upheld glove,

and the man in front of me
in the grandstand, drinking banana   
daiquiris from a thermos,
continuing through a whole dinner
to the aromatic cigar even as our team
is shut out, nearly hitless, he is
not like the farmer that Auden speaks   
of in Breughel’s Icarus,
or the four inevitable woman-hating   
drunkards, yelling, hugging
each other and moving up and down   
continuously for more beer

and the young wife trying to understand   
what a full count could be
to please her husband happy in   
his old dreams, or the little boy
in the Yankees cap already nodding   
off to sleep against his father,
program and popcorn memories   
sliding into the future,
and the old woman from Lincoln, Maine,   
screaming at the Yankee slugger   
with wounded knees to break his leg

this is not a microcosm,   
not even a slice of life

and the terrible slumps,
when the greatest hitter mysteriously   
goes hitless for weeks, or
the pitcher’s stuff is all junk
who threw like a magician all last month,   
or the days when our guys look
like Sennett cops, slipping, bumping   
each other, then suddenly, the play
that wasn’t humanly possible, the Kid   
we know isn’t ready for the big leagues,   
leaps into the air to catch a ball
that should have gone downtown,   
and coming off the field is hugged   
and bottom-slapped by the sudden   
sorcerers, the winning team

the question of what makes a man   
slump when his form, his eye,
his power aren’t to blame, this isn’t   
like the bad luck that hounds us,   
and his frustration in the games   
not like our deep rage
for disappointing ourselves

the ball park is an artifact,
manicured, safe, “scene in an Easter egg,”   
and the order of the ball game,   
the firm structure with the mystery   
of accidents always contained,   
not the wild field we wander in,   
where I’m trying to recite the rules,   
to repeat the statistics of the game,
and the wind keeps carrying my words away.

~Gail Mazur

In class, we discussed apophasis, the ancient rhetorical technique with which Mazur convinces us of the very thing she's denying: "this is not a microcosm, / not even a slice of life...." But it is, of course. Right down to the slumps and those left stranded on base. I walked out of Kerwin Hall just as the first pitch of Game 7 was being thrown, and I drove home as fast as I could, listening anxiously on the radio as the Astros homered. We reheated the Ethiopian take-out that I'd gotten on campus and settled in.

My team won. We won a series no one expected us to win, a series that one that no one even expected us to be in, and we won in an incredible & improbable four games on the road. We won after a May low of being 19-31, 12 games below .500. We stayed in the fight, and we baby sharked our way through our embarrassment, and we hustled the bases, and we danced--yes, even Stephen Strasburg--and here we are. And dammit it, that's a slice of the life I'm here for. What a beautiful game. 

October 16, 2019


One month exactly after losing our cat, Whisky, I had a good if tiring Tuesday that culminated in leading the MFA poetry workshop at American University. Many folks were absent--it's that time of the semester--so we let out a little early, which meant that I spontaneously offered to pick up dinner from 2Amys, which meant that my car found itself crawling along Macomb Street right as the services from Washington Hebrew Congregation let out.

I didn't want to process what I could see in front of me. Squirrel? Must be a squirrel. But a woman coming in the opposite direction stopped her car in the road and hopped out. Bless her for breaking the spell. "This is someone's kitty," she said, scooping up the gray cat and moving it to the sidewalk. She had what might have been a young son in the passenger seat, wide-eyed, so after that she kept going. 

At the next intersection, I flagged down a police officer and asked him to go check. I told him the cat might still be alive, and he nodded noncommittally. After I parked I walked back, wondering, and of course there the creature was alone, still and untended, as passersby from the services streamed past along the pavement. 

So I knocked on doors. And I rang bells. And I crossed the street, back and forth, looking for someone--anyone--who might answer and know this cat. I couldn't bear the thought of someone emerging the next morning to find the cat there or, worse, animal control coming by and taking the body before anyone knew what had happened. 

Eventually, a woman come to the door of the smallest house, the one the cat had been closest to, the one that had a small bowl for kibble on the front step. This was my third try and I was about to give up. Apparently her ringer had never sounded inside, but she'd spotted the lavender of my dress. The moment I even began to speak, she knew. She cried, "Dusty!" The cat had been with her for twenty years. 

Her grief is her grief, and it's not mine to display here. But I was grateful to be there with her, in the moment, to help as we took care of things; to feel the cat's light heft in my hands as it was curled into a bed bought not that long ago.

Because this is what humans do, I still went and got the damn pizza, the roasted peppers and anchovies, the rapini. In the moment I had no appetite, but I knew that I would later. I was glad no one asked about my red, swollen eyes. 

The next night was another class at American University. I wanted to choose something that dealt with grief, but not of an articulated sort. Undergraduates are just finding their way to naming what makes them feel the way they feel--and you have to be careful not to force it on them. So I reached for this beautiful if puzzling (for some) poem from Kaveh Akbar, "Orchids Are Sprouting From the Floorboards"~

Orchids Are Sprouting From the Floorboards

Orchids are sprouting from the floorboards.

Orchids are gushing out from the faucets.

The cat mews orchids from his mouth.

His whiskers are also orchids.

The grass is sprouting orchids.

It is becoming mostly orchids.

The trees are filled with orchids.

The tire swing is twirling with orchids.

The sunlight on the wet cement is a white orchid.

The car tires leave a trail of orchids.

A bouquet of orchids lifts from its tailpipe.

Teenagers are texting each other pictures

of orchids on their phones, which are also orchids.

Old men in orchid pennyloafers

furiously trade orchids.

Mothers fill bottles with warm orchids

to feed their infants, who are orchids themselves.

Their coos are a kind of orchid.

The clouds are all orchids.

They are raining orchids.

The walls are all orchids,

the teapot is an orchid,

the blank easel is an orchid

and this cold is an orchid. Oh,

Lydia, we miss you terribly.

~Kaveh Akbar

I often use this poem to talk about contemporary poetry's value on parallel structure, anaphora, and excess. The reaction tends to be polarized--some readers love it, others really resist it. In particular I always enjoy the telescoping of those penultimate lines, as the poem's "camera" seems to zoom in on a particular room and a particular speaker (one with a cold). I was delighted that this time the students found their way organically to thinking of how funerals are often the cause for a profusion of flowers. 

Since I didn't want to create an utterly morose atmosphere, I found another way to think about excess: Neko Atsume, the Japanese mobile game of cat collecting. There's a calming quality to cats en masse, even though on another level it's creepy; this resonates with anyone who has been to an island where the feral cat population has surged. I offered a few screenshots toying with the game's premise and outcomes. 

...goofy, for sure, but poetry thrives alongside goofy. I was mostly trying not to cry.