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BASEBALL BY THE BOOKS

Take Me Out to Parnassus
Book Review by Mikhail Horowitz

Tom Tolnay, Editor. Baseball and the Lyrical Life, Delhi, NY: Birch Book Press, 1999, 88 pp., $15, paper.

It exists outside of time.

So wrote Gilbert Sorrentino of baseball, and he might just as well have been writing of poetry. Neither the feats of the Mets nor the doings of the muses are governed by a clock; they unfold in a limitless field, transcendent of the whims of passing seasons. Those painted men or gods on the Grecian urn, whose pipes and timbrels continued to enchant the ear of Keats, inhabit the same undying realm as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle, for whom the crowds of an antique day continue to roar. The game, and the poem, are forever present in the moment, and the moment opens, like the gates to Parnassus Stadium, into eternity.

That line by Sorrentino appeared in the tenth issue of Io (circa early seventies), the granddaddy of compilations wedding the national pastime and contemporary literature. (It also featured the first published poem by soon-to-be-zillionaire Stephen King, a distinctly unhorrific elegy to the Brooklyn Dodgers and Ebbets Field.) Since then, scads of anthologies comprising baseball poetry and fiction have stepped up to the plate–Line Drives, forthcoming from Kent State University Press, will be devoted solely to poetry–along with a short list of literary journals embracing the game (Spitball, Elysian Fields Quarterly). You can even find poetry on the official Web site of the Los Angeles Dodgers (www.dodgers.com), recited (no lie) by Vin Scully and Tommy Lasorda. (One of them, "Pearly Babe," was written by the author of this review and originally appeared in vol. 16 no. 3 of this journal.)

All of which brings us to Baseball and the Lyrical Life, edited by Tom Tolnay and handsomely designed, typeset in Binny Old Style, and printed letterpress in Delhi, New York. I don't know how much awareness Tolnay has of previous attempts to blend both batting and bardic practice (at least one of his writers, Merritt Clifton, had a piece in an earlier compilation of baseball lit, from Pig Iron Press in 1982), but he's written a lovely introduction and assembled a pretty good team, though here and there a couple of bats are dragging.

One of the staples of baseball poetry is the Ode to a Hero, and these provide some of the strongest pieces in Baseball and the Lyrical Life. Clifton's "Ted Williams, Age 63, Takes Batting Practice" is a perfectly pitched anecdote that gives you the essence of the man–his rarefied prowess, fierce pride, his frightening, almost pathological drive. Michael Bielawa, the "poet laureate of Ansonia, Connecticut," paints a suitably outsized portrait of the Babe in the first part of his "Ruth Trilogy," imagining the Bambino as "a whole Bix horn section" with "a runny nose and raspberried elbows . . . sharing his pinstripes with Father Christmas/and grape-festooned Bacchus." And Gene Carney lets the poetry of Satchel Paige's pet names for the pitches in his arsenal speak for itself:

Little Tom and Long
Radio and B Balls
Two-hump Blooper
And the Hesi-
Tation

In addition to allowing us to worship or identify with heroes in an unheroic age, or even to fantasize ourselves as heroes in Dodger blue or Cincinnati red, baseball offers the casual fan or crazed fanatic alike an endless supply of minutiae with which to whittle away one's life. The cabalistic complexities of statistics, the arcana of rules, the lore pertaining to names and teams, and the peculiar resonance of equipment are all fit subjects for poetry. No less than three of Tolnay's poets–Bielawa, Pat Jasper, and Larry Fisher–attend to that primary baseball fetish, the glove. Bielawa contemplates gloves "stacked like sacred catacomb skulls/of holy men/in the aisles/of Cooperstown antique stores," wistfully imagining, in their number, the one he wore as a kid playing catch with his dad. Jasper, while also connecting the glove to time past, sees it as emblematic of a continuum; he advises us that after oiling a new one down, we should bury the old one in a "trunk of prized possessions" and let its replacement become "supple as new skin." Fisher, too, albeit in a more sentimental vein, meditates upon an old glove's leathery reflection of its owner's life.

If the quality of the poems in Baseball and the Lyrical Life is uneven, the editor has an eloquent apologia for that in his introduction. Tolnay justifies his mix of "professional" poets and nonpoets by arguing that baseball conjoins all fans, from academics to civil servants to truck drivers, in a common dialogue; moreover, it provides, with its peak and ordinary moments so intimately tied to our lives, a rare impetus for nonpoets to write poems. Hence, "when it is all played out for the full nine innings, the best fans will be able to appreciate each of these poems on their own levels. For baseball is the great leveler of playing fields–not only in life, but in the imitation of life; that is, in art."

Baseball and the Lyrical Life is printed on cream-white Mohawk vellum with woodcut illustrations by Frank C. Eckmair, my favorite of which is a poetry book with a ball-in-glove motif on its cover.

–EFQ

MIKHAIL HOROWITZ is the author of Big League Poets (City Lights, 1978) and a contributor to many outré baseball anthologies.

© 2000 Mikhail Horowitz

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