'Heart of the order,' Edited by Gabriel Fried
Reviewed by Dionisio Velasco
I'm pitching in Cincinnati and this is shortly after Ball Four came out and Pete Rose is standing on the top step of the dugout and he's screaming at the top of his lungs, "Fuck you, Shakespeare!"
Jim Bouton's anecdote of Charley Hustle's salute may be apocryphal, but Rose's hollering certainly would have been inspired by his displeasure with Ball Four, the former Yankees pitcher's memoir. A kid when I first read it, I didn't get many of the adult allusions made in the book—the pill-popping, boozing, womanizing—but the punchy, vibrant prose gave me the thrilling sense that some messy, verboten truths about baseball were being revealed. Bouton was the second baseball bard I would encounter. Growing up in the Bronx a Mets fan, I first experienced communication with the richly expansive language of baseball from a trio of TV/radio announcers, Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner, whose broadcasts in the miracle season of 1969 were like spoken word poetry to me. Right after watching a game on TV, I'd rush out to the backyard, my brother in tow, to reenact the key plays, simultaneously announcing out loud while running through them. The next morning I'd scan the box score in the dailies to re-live the game a third time –Cleon Jones went three for four with a double and two RBI! A new poetry anthology of baseball, Heart of the Order (Persea Books), edited by Gabriel Fried, gets at what it means to be a player, a spectator, a fan, and a consumer of the game.
Why does our attention to a radio broadcast tend to be more rapt than our attention to a telecast? Sealed in her car, worried that there are "No angels in the sky today—baseball-ese for a cloudless afternoon," the speaker in Gail Mazur's "Listening To Baseball in the Car" invokes the heavens to provide cover against fly balls lost in the glare of the sun. Or the boy in "Radio," by James Pollock, glimpsing his father who sits in a dark kitchen and grips the radio with a fervor that borders on madness, trying to will the outcome in his team's favor. Larry Moffi's "Homage to a Vacant Lot" presents a baseball Everyman loyal to Brooklyn Dodger blue, and his wife who is loyal to him, both working as dreary office drones. The downstairs neighbor’s kid expects to find the man—depends on it, really—from April to October sitting on the porch with his mournful beer and cigs and Dodgers on the radio. Inspired by the man's basic coaching skills, the kid shags fly balls that are dutifully hit by the man when he’s not engrossed in his radio ritual, redeeming their relationship with grace.
The anthology offers a lighter side of the baseball universe as well. There's the daunting, lawn-obsessed neighbor in "The Man into Whose Yard You Should Not Hit Your Ball" (Thomas Lux); and the breezy yet pointed short poem "Baseball" (Wyatt Prunty) in which TV broadcaster Dizzy Dean casually drops sexual innuendo when a couple in the crowd shares an on-camera kiss, prompting reference to Valery remaking Descartes: "I sometimes think, therefore I sometimes am." It's William Trowbridge's contribution that most aptly serves up the outsider's self-deprecatory place in baseball. His "Poets' Corner" is right field, the gulag of position players where the misfit, the loner, the dreamer, the poet will be forever banished, dubbing himself "some kind of / little priss, some kind / of Percy Bitch Shelby." The poem speaks to me, speaks for me, light-hitting, utility infielder, underweight, brown-skinned, woeful Mets fan from the Bronx.
From childhood, I developed a need to immerse myself in the signs and symbols of baseball. During my many sojourns at Shea Stadium, I scratched out in pencil a meticulous scorecard. Every year I got a Mets yearbook. I collected a stack of autographed 8x10 glossy black and white photographs of my favorite Mets—Bud Harrelson, Tom Seaver, Ron Swoboda, Art Shamsky, Gil Hodges. I'd figured out a surefire system where I mailed my request letter (to what address?! New York Metropolitans, Shea Stadium, Flushing, NY?) for a signed photo of a desired player and a few weeks later it magically arrived in the mailbox.
Like many kids, I collected, traded and flipped for baseball cards. You'd open a pack and revel in the tactile sensation of the matte finish of the fresh cards, and then the smell of bubble gum would hit you. Christopher Bursk's wonderful paean, "The Ars Poetica of Baseball Cards," celebrates the unsung ballplayers, leveling the field, immortalizing the pinch runners, the journeymen, the Texas Leaguers, the broken-down second basemen. He owns the ability to hold each "man in my hands / and look into his eyes without him / turning away. I was as free to gaze at him / as I was to gaze into water." The poem's nod to Whitman is as readily apparent as is its sinewy strength.
Baseball may best be played when one relies on timing and instinct, not overthinking the mechanics. Look the ball into your glove. Run to where it's hit. Don't let the game get inside your head. Let go and that's where the fun is. Heart of the Order is a poetry collection sprawling in its perceptions, a product of reflective thinking about the game while the poems gratify in their sensuality. Democratic verse that provides pleasure, nothing more Whitman than that. But perhaps the rascally pitcher Jim Bouton has said it best: "You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."
Heart of the Order: Baseball Poems
Edited by Gabriel Fried
Persea Books (April 5, 2014)
DIONISIO VELASCO is a writer of short fiction, personal essays and poetry. His work has been published in Jungle Planet (Manoa, A Pacific Journal of International Writing), Walang Hiya (Arkilepago Books), Engendering Visions (Asian Pacific American Journal), New Asia (The Portable Lower East Side) and Vestiges of War (New York University Press). His baseball idol has always been scrappy Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson for taking on tough guy Pete Rose during the 1973 National League Championship Series.