Wednesday, April 30, 2008

B.H. Fairchild - Body And Soul

BODY AND SOUL


Half-numb, guzzling bourbon and Coke from coffee mugs,
our fathers fall in love with their own stories, nuzzling
the facts but mauling the truth, and my friend’s father begins
to lay out with the slow ease of a blues ballad a story
about sandlot baseball in Commerce, Oklahoma decades ago.
These were men’s teams, grown men, some in their thirties
and forties who worked together in zinc mines or on oil rigs,
sweat and khaki and long beers after work, steel guitar music
whanging in their ears, little white rent houses to return to
where their wives complained about money and broken Kenmores
and then said the hell with it and sang Body and Soul
in the bathtub and later that evening with the kids asleep
lay in bed stroking their husband’s wrist tattoo and smoking
Chesterfields from a fresh pack until everything was O.K.
Well, you get the idea. Life goes on, the next day is Sunday,
another ball game, and the other team shows up one man short.

They say we’re one man short, but can we use this boy,
he’s only fifteen years old, and at least he’ll make a game.
They take a look at the kid, muscular and kind of knowing
the way he holds his glove, with the shoulders loose,
the thick neck, but then with that boy’s face under
a clump of angelic blonde hair, and say, oh, hell, sure,
let’s play ball. So it all begins, the men loosening up,
joking about the fat catcher’s sex life, it’s so bad
last night he had to hump his wife, that sort of thing,
pairing off into little games of catch that heat up into
throwing matches, the smack of the fungo bat, lazy jogging
into right field, big smiles and arcs of tobacco juice,
and the talk that gives a cool, easy feeling to the air,
talk among men normally silent, normally brittle and a little
angry with the empty promise of their lives. But they chatter
and say rock and fire, babe, easy out, and go right ahead
and pitch to the boy, but nothing fancy, just hard fastballs
right around the belt, and the kid takes the first two
but on the third pops the bat around so quick and sure
that they pause a moment before turning around to watch
the ball still rising and finally dropping far beyond
the abandoned tractor that marks left field. Holy shit.
They’re pretty quiet watching him round the bases,
but then, what the hell, the kid knows how to hit a ball,
so what, let’s play some goddamned baseball here.
And so it goes. The next time up, the boy gets a look
at a very nifty low curve, then a slider, and the next one
is the curve again, and he sends it over the Allis Chambers,
high and big and sweet. The left fielder just stands there, frozen.
As if this isn’t enough, the next time up he bats left-handed.
They can’t believe it, and the pitcher, a tall, mean-faced
man from Okarche who just doesn’t give a shit anyway
because his wife ran off two years ago leaving him with
three little ones and a rusted-out Dodge with a cracked block,
leans in hard, looking at the fat catcher like he was the sonofabitch
who ran off with his wife, leans in and throws something
out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs, something
that comes in at the knees and then leaps viciously towards
the kid’s elbow. He swings exactly the way he did right-handed,
and they all turn like a chorus line toward deep right field
where the ball loses itself in sagebrush and the sad burnt
dust of dustbowl Oklahoma. It is something to see.

But why make a long story long: runs pile up on both sides,
the boy comes around five times, and five times the pitcher
is cursing both God and His mother as his chew of tobacco sours
into something resembling horse piss, and a ragged and bruised
Spalding baseball disappears into the far horizon. Goodnight,
Irene. They have lost the game and some painful side bets
and they have been suckered. And it means nothing to them
though it should to you when they are told the boy’s name is
Mickey Mantle. And that’s the story, and those are the facts.
But the facts are not the truth. I think, though, as I scan
the faces of these old men now lost in the innings of their youth,
I think I know what the truth of this story is, and I imagine
it lying there in the weeds behind that Allis Chalmers
just waiting for the obvious question to be asked: why, oh
why in hell didn’t they just throw around the kid, walk him,
after he hit the third homer? Anybody would have,
especially nine men with disappointed wives and dirty socks
and diminishing expectations for whom winning at anything
meant everything. Men who knew how to play the game,
who had talent when the other team had nothing except this ringer
who without a pitch to hit was meaningless, and they could go home
with their little two-dollar side bets and stride into the house
singing If You’ve Got the Money, Honey, I’ve Got the Time
with a bottle of Southern Comfort under their arms and grab
Dixie or May Ella up and dance across the gray linoleum
as if it were V-Day all over again. But they did not.
And they did not because they were men, and this was a boy.
And they did not because sometimes after making love,
after smoking their Chesterfields in the cool silence and
listening to the big bands on the radio that sounded so glamorous,
so distant, they glanced over at their wives and notice the lines
growing heavier around the eyes and mouth, felt what their wives
felt: that Les Brown and Glenn Miller and all those dancing couples
and in fact all possibility of human gaiety and light-heartedness
were as far away and unreachable as Times Square or the Avalon
ballroom. They did not because of the gray linoleum lying there
in the half-dark, the free calendar from the local mortuary
that said one day was pretty much like another, the work gloves
looped over the doorknob like dead squirrels. And they did not
because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it
at the feet of a fifteen year-old boy. And so they did not walk him,
and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves
to take back home. But there is one thing more, though it is not
a fact. When I see my friend’s father staring hard into the bottomless
well of home plate as Mantle’s fifth homer heads toward Arkansas,
I know that this man with the half-orphaned children and
worthless Dodge had also encountered for his first and possibly
only time the vast gap between talent and genius, has seen
as few have in the harsh light of an Oklahoma Sunday, the blonde
and blue-eyed bringer of truth, who will not easily be forgotten.

---B.H. Fairchild


B.H. Fairchild's Body And Soul

Out of all the poems I’ve presented this month, I saved my very favorite poem for last. This is my favorite poem. Unabashedly I love this poem and the fascinating story it tells, shuffling the wide gauntlet of emotions from gritty to heart-warming. Fairchild's characters are well developed and many of the lines are well crafted lyrics. When I think of good, lasting poetry I think of this poem. You don't have to love baseball, be from Oklahoma, or have lived through WWII to enjoy this poem, probably because the poem's theme is universal. Like Fairchild's working class families, all of us endeavor to persevere through adversity and carve out our slice of greatness. Sometimes it takes the pinnacle of brilliance to deliver perspective---in this case, a baby-faced farm boy with a mischievous swing who'll eventually slug his way into the New York Yankees hallowed history.

Before I delve into the meat of Body And Soul, it's important I explain a little more about the important place this poem occupies in my mind and heart. When B.H. (Pete) Fairchild came to read at Emerson College two years ago, one of my grad school professors, Dan Tobin, introduced me to B.H. Fairchild. Dan knew the depth of my admiration for Fairchild's poetry and wanted to make sure I could pick his brain for a few minutes. After his reading, I asked B.H. about Body And Soul, specifically about the shocking turn of revealing "the kid" to be a young version of the legendary Mickey Mantle. As I was asking my question a fit of goosebumps cascaded down my arms and then over my whole body. It's rare that we come face to face with the creators of our favorites. I never met Alfred Hitchcock for coffee to ask him how he conceived the final haunting scene of Vertigo. Steve Carell and I have yet to cook up burgers on his George Foreman grill and talk about the intricacies of playing Michael Scott. I wasn't alive to sit in on an Otis Redding recording session at Stax Records in Memphis. I could continue with a litany of other favorites, but I think you catch my drift, or as Otis would have said "you dig." Poetry might be one of the last accessible art forms. Please tell me you see the inherent and wicked irony in this last sentence. Poetry isn't as difficult, high brow, or esoteric as some would have you believe.

Body And Soul is by no means a short poem. It's probably the longest poem I've presented this month, but I would surprisingly contend it's the easiest to read. The long lines Fairchild utilizes mirror a storytelling speech pattern that is just as easy to fall into as a sing-song-Dr.Seuss-rhyming-speech pattern. Fairchild makes this clear, telling us "our fathers fall in love with their own stories, nuzzling / the facts but mauling the truth." Some poems beg to be read to a crowd; Body And Soul is one of these poems. Colloquialisms and slang take the poem from the page and put words into the reader's mouth. I've never been to Commerce, Oklahoma but I feel like a townie when I read " grown men, some in their thirties / and forties who worked together in zinc mines or on oil rigs, /sweat and khaki and long beers after work, steel guitar music / whanging in their ears, little white rent houses to return to / where their wives complained about money and broken Kenmores / and then said the hell with it and sang Body and Soul /
in the bathtub and later that evening with the kids asleep / lay in bed stroking their husband’s wrist tattoo and smoking /Chesterfields from a fresh pack until everything was O.K." Now that he has us firmly entrenched in the life and lore of small town Oklahoma, it's time for the story to begin.

The teams gather and the visiting team is one man short, "but can we use this boy, / he’s only fifteen years old, and at least he’ll make a game." Sure as hell he'll make a game, he'd make any game, especially in a sandlot with a crowd of has-beens and never-was ball playing mechanics and factory workers. They look forward to this game with a vigilant enthusiasm that makes all the hardships smaller. They look forward to putting on the uniform, loosening up their arms, swinging the lumber, tasting dirt and spitting tobacco, rubbing the balls seams against their fingertips. The game is an event, even if there is no great crowd watching and even if they'll never gain a dime off their efforts. And the game heats up: "But they chatter /
and say rock and fire, babe, easy out, and go right ahead / and pitch to the boy, but nothing fancy, just hard fastballs / right around the belt, and the kid takes the first two / but on the third pops the bat around so quick and sure / that they pause a moment before turning around to watch / the ball still rising and finally dropping far beyond / the abandoned tractor that marks left field. Holy shit. / They’re pretty quiet watching him round the bases, / but then, what the hell, the kid knows how to hit a ball, / so what, let’s play some goddamned baseball here." Yes sir, let's play some baseball. Fairchild captures the nuances of the game and playing it so naturally. It's obvious that he grew up playing and knows what it's like to drive the winning run in, but also give up the winning run.

After another home run by the kid, the order turns around and he's at bat again. The pitcher has seen him take two solid pitches and park them deep outside the park. He's determined not to give up a third homer to the kid, who lines up left-handed for his third at bat. "They can’t believe it, and the pitcher, a tall, mean-faced / man from Okarche who just doesn’t give a shit anyway / because his wife ran off two years ago leaving him with / three little ones and a rusted-out Dodge with a cracked block, / leans in hard, looking at the fat catcher like he was the sonofabitch / who ran off with his wife, leans in and throws something / out of the dark, green hell of forbidden fastballs, something / that comes in at the knees and then leaps viciously towards / the kid’s elbow." I have to pause to point out how seamlessly Fairchild moves between the characters and the action in this poem. Here, he moves from the kid, to all the players, to the pitcher, and then back to the kid. The pitcher's life melds with his process and we, yet again, understand just how important this game is to these men. The pitcher is using it as a release and an emblematic reminder of happier days. But even though his anger is magnificent and his love for the game is true, he was not kissed with talent like the kid he's pitching to. The kid "swings exactly the way he did right-handed, / and they all turn like a chorus line toward deep right field / where the ball loses itself in sagebrush and the sad burnt / dust of dustbowl Oklahoma. It is something to see." It sure is something to see and, thank God, Fairchild makes sure we see it.

The kid will come to bat more times and smack more balls into oblivion. He wins the game single-handedly for his team. "And it means nothing to them / though it should to you when they are told the boy’s name is /Mickey Mantle. And that’s the story, and those are the facts." The whole poem has been tinged with magic, but this is where the spell is cast. This is where the poem finds its gravity and cements itself in our minds. In finding this gravity, Fairchild has created the exact moment where the most incisive question must be asked: "why, oh / why in hell didn’t they just throw around the kid, walk him, / after he hit the third homer? Anybody would have, / especially nine men with disappointed wives and dirty socks /and diminishing expectations for whom winning at anything / meant everything." We've seen the dust that accumulates in their lives and we've seen the broken parts in need of repair but lacking the funds necessary to have them replaced. So many of the characters in this poem are bankrupt in some way. To see them lose this baseball game, especially to this kid, is heart wrenching. You can't help but think these men deserve better. But why didn't they pitch around Mantle? Fairchild seizes this question with an elegant sweeping answer: "And they did not because they were men, and this was a boy...And they did not / because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left / them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers / and everyone else had cost them just too goddamned much to lay it / at the feet of a fifteen year-old boy. And so they did not walk him, / and lost, but at least had some ragged remnant of themselves / to take back home. But there is one thing more, though it is not / a fact. When I see my friend’s father staring hard into the bottomless / well of home plate as Mantle’s fifth homer heads toward Arkansas, / I know that this man with the half-orphaned children and / worthless Dodge had also encountered for his first and possibly / only time the vast gap between talent and genius, has seen / as few have in the harsh light of an Oklahoma Sunday, the blonde / and blue-eyed bringer of truth, who will not easily be forgotten." Wow, I still get chills reading these final fourteen lines. This is the type of writing that changes lives. I know this because it has changed my life, it has made me understand that writing a poem of this magnitude goes beyond working remarkably hard. The pitcher in this poem worked remarkably hard in all facets of his life and still came up empty. I don't want to be that pitcher. I don't want my hard work to go by the wayside. I want affirmation that I've been blessed with unique talent and, although I might not be a genius, I have poems and stories worth telling.





















2 comments:

John said...

Damned good commentary on that superb poem. In today's (March 26, 2011) LA Times Sports section is a prose story of how Mickey Mantle did exactly the same thing to the USC Trojans baseball team when he was 19 years old--four years after Fairchild's story, when he was a rookie with the Yankees. Your account of how the poem works is EXCELLENT, and I'm going to pass it on to Baxter Holmes at the LA Times, to let him know (a) about Pete Fairchild's poem, and (b) your commentary. And while I'm at it, I'll pass it on to Fairchild.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your appreciation for my essay and for Fairchild's poem. I also owe you a thanks for alerting me to the LA Times article on Mickey Mantle and the USC baseball team. Being an avid sports fan, I'm starting to wonder what bits of nostalgia from today's sports will fans be clamoring about fifty years from now. It baffles my mind to think that we're only five years or so away from a whole generation of high schoolers who never saw Cal Ripken, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, or Walter Payton play live...