Image: "Alternate Olympics 2012 Logo"
Today we will begin a series within this series. We've asked a number of poets to cover sports that used to be in the Olympics and aren't any more. We're calling them the Ghost Sports. In many ways, the decision to remove a sport from the Games tells us as much about the state of our worlds and cultures as any medal round we watch on tv. First up, Peter Campion and Nick Ripatrazone talk baseball.
I’m not disappointed that the International Olympic Committee cut baseball from the London Games. They had good reasons, surely. In the space on their schedule left by that languorous, bucolic pastime, they added a true spectacle of athleticism — golf. In fact, there was room enough for a second sport. Here, they thought to address another problem that the inclusion of baseball had underlined, the tendency of certain sports to favor one, dominant nation. So the I.O.C. dedicated the remaining time and money to an event certain to draw the punters into cross-cultural exchange — rugby sevens.
I’m convinced the committee made the right decision. Olympic baseball always seemed a put on, anyhow, a break from the real deal, a moment of enforced mirth that quickly grew tedious, like Pajama Day at school.
And I have to admit: the rest of the Olympics has always felt to me like Pajama Day at school. Back in the summer of 2008, I tried to watch the swimming events and all I saw was splashing. In the middle of the spray were some heads, wearing these rubber skull-condoms, emblazoned with the flags of their nations. It was hard to tell if any one head was really in front. Then it was over, someone had won, some mutant with a torso as long as a Buick. The analysis and the advertisements must have cycled for hours.
I also watched the running. This was easier to follow, perhaps too easy: the figures circled the track in their slender rows, like toy figures powered from remote control. There was no competition at all because there was nothing the slightest bit dramatic: the best runner was first, the second best was second, the third best, etcetera. The differences between them must have been pre-determined by genetics, since each had obviously received the ultimate training, the kind of care and attention that occurs mainly in neo-natal wards and missile silos.
The Olympics began to fill me with dolor. Was this really all that athleticism came down to in its sheerest forms? Trials of endurance and capacity? Freakish feats? How much, how fast, how far.
How arbitrary! I could come up with this stuff and give it away for free. I mean, my brother once squeezed 25 grapes into his mouth — I have the picture. No one gave him a medal. A friend of mine was skinny-dipping in a Vermont pond a few years ago, when the cops showed up and started shouting through a megaphone. He had to run naked, the whole three miles to where we were staying, without being caught by the police or seen by the neighbors, who were all out grilling their Oscar Mayer weiners. Now, that could make an incredible sport.
But here’s my best idea. Senior year of high school, my friends and I called ourselves “the science team,” not only because of our elaborate experiments involving alcohol and THC, but also because of our dedication to finding any activity that cultivated the very best in the human spirit. And after one of our lab sessions, in the middle of a blizzard, we cruised the deserted streets of our New England town in a Ford Pinto. Whenever we found an orange traffic drum, we slammed it, head on. This required much more subtlety and skill than one might guess. Each of those traffic drums contains a sandbag, hanging from a rope inside, for ballast. When you hit a drum at optimum speed, from one exact angle, not only does the drum fly through the air, but its sandbag explodes, concluding the game with an exuberant, percussive crescendo, reminiscent of Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov.
I am currently writing to the I.O.C. (the damn form’s around here somewhere) to recommend the inclusion of this sport in future games. It surely has the same intellectual simplicity as those other Olympic events. Personally, I think it’s more fun and entertaining. But I plan to submit my proposal for “Traffic Drum Slam Drive” in the spirit of diplomatic compromise. You see, having reached adulthood, I myself now prefer baseball. But you just can’t include a game like baseball in the Olympics. It’s too much too fast for those who enjoy the cruder fare provided by the Olympics.
It’s not only that scientists have proven there’s no athletic skill more difficult than hitting a baseball pitched at full speed. Indeed, such a display of talent might embarrass the frantic paddlers of men’s double canoeing or the hefty heavers of shot put — those human boulders who twirl and twitch in circles, with their hands scrunched to their necks like people in serious need of neurological treatment. No, it’s more that baseball has so many elements, intertwining in endless combinations. As if that weren’t enough, a whole other, intricate world lies beneath the surface of baseball. I mean the subjective dream life that each fan brings to the game, so that the sport takes on a kind of collective unconscious, weaving around the central storyline. In this regard, following baseball resembles the pleasure of reading “difficult” poems or novels. And it would be inappropriate, slightly cruel even, to expect fans of the Olympics instantly to rise to this level of attentiveness — as if, when my infant daughter cried in her crib, I decided to read aloud 50 pages of The Princess Cassamassima instead of changing her diaper.
Maybe there’s hope, though. During the last few weeks, as all the Olympic previews and promos have popped across my television and computer screens, appearing with the mindless pomp and ridiculous solemnity of a Katy Perry video directed by Leni Reifenstahl — I have developed another modest proposal to bring baseball to the world. I’ve based my plans on my years of experience teaching poetry. So many intelligent students are intimidated by poetry. They suspect hidden meanings everywhere, as if the poems meant to single them out and humiliate them — like Belgian waiters spitting in their bisque. I’ve learned to allay such fears by acting as a language teacher of sorts, by having my students concentrate on those simple formal features that are right there on the page. We consider them one at a time: voice, line, syntax, tone, plot, stanza. This approach seems to work. And I think we could do something similar with baseball: we could break baseball down into small component parts, such as running from home plate to first, or diving for pop-ups.
Each of these tasks could become an Olympic exhibition sport until players and viewers, like new speakers of some foreign tongue, slowly caught on and integrated their knowledge of the separate activities. We really could pick any aspect of baseball — even spitting your tobacco juice the farthest, even pulling at your crotch as extravagantly as possible. (Having lived in Italy for a year, I’m positive this last event will find many foreign adherents.) Any of these endeavors has got to be as thrilling as such official Olympic feats as lifting metal discs while grunting, or throwing a pointy stick at a field, or thwocking a stone across a long sheet of ice with a broom. (That one may be in the Winter Olympics, but who the Hell knows.)
What do you say? I need some collaborators on this project. I myself am going to be useless during the next few days. You guessed it: the Red Sox are playing the Yankees in the Bronx, and Pedroia’s back, Baby!
The dugouts are empty and the bats are silent: there is no baseball in the London Olympics. There will be no baseball in the 2016 Berlin games. Baseball has merged its international governing body with another spurned sport, softball, for their 2020 bid. It pains me to hear Softball Federation President Don Porter’s admission that they will try to find ways to make both sports “more attractive and interesting.”
Some major reasons for exclusion include the sport’s more provincial following in Europe (despite its relative popularity in the Americas and Asia), concerns about drug testing, and the absence of Major League Baseball players. Yet a more implicit trait appears to have doomed baseball’s chances as an Olympic sport — relatively slow, long games with moments of muted drama. This is the same element that makes baseball so beautifully poetic.
Baseball, even when played in the most urban locations, is a reminder of the pastoral. The field is geometrically pleasing: batter and catcher boxes, on-deck circles, the manicured diamond centered with the pitcher’s mound, the dirt infield and the grassed outfield, stretching to the fences. That back border is hard, but other borders, like foul lines, can be straddled and crossed. Soft grass and rough dirt can both stain bodies. The bases, though fixed onto anchors, are sometimes upended. Home plate is often buried. It is a static field in almost constant flux.
Fiction and film have romanticized the game, but poets have given the mythology further refinement and form. Marianne Moore, who threw out the first pitch of the season at Yankee Stadium in 1968, finds “excitement — / a fever” in the unexpected nature of the game. Unlike basketball, with set hoops, and football, with end zones that must be reached like conquered land, baseball hinges on the relationship between pitcher and batter. If baseball hits bat, the ball springs, and the action follows that white blur. For a sport billed as slow and steady, the movement can be swift and erratic. In “Writing and Baseball,” Moore finds a connection between the unpredictability of both arts, and her uneven structure pushes forward the breakneck lines: a “leaping” player
snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest, / one-handing the souvenir-to-be / meant to be caught by you or me.
Moore’s witty poem is framed by her epigraph: “Suggested by post-game broadcasts.” Baseball is a game clothed in commentary from raised booths and rows of seats: a world covered in words.
Fernando Perez, the first Major League Baseball player to be published in Poetry, writes that the world of baseball is infinitely splintered and complicated. Minor league players are like itinerant bards, “slouched on a bus, watching small towns roll by matter-of-factly like stock market tickers,” even, as he quotes Ginsberg, “‘shopping for images’ in a Wal-Mart.” Perez knows that “eventually my prime will end” and baseball will “slowly break my heart.” He turns to poetry “because it is less susceptible to circumstance,” and yet he is “not especially interested in having one world endear itself to the other.” A baseball player, he wants the worlds of poetry and baseball “apart.”
That could be the ultimate draw of the sport to poets: it feels like a mythological other, a well-groomed natural world that resists the occasional simplification and nostalgia that poets wish to drape on it. Robert Creeley, Perez’s favorite poet, laments:
The one damn time (7th inning) / standing up to get a hot dog someone spills / mustard all over me.
In a sport where Babe Ruth is king, where The Pride of the Yankees inspires those who can’t stand the Bronx Bombers, hyperbole and humor equal a second reality, a pastime more game than sport. It is a game where rules are bent, where decisions of safe versus out, ball versus strike, are handed down by umpires who sometimes shout, nearly mouth-to-mouth, with frustrated coaches. A game where pitchers might bean batters, where a thief of the infield — a base stealer — is praised by Robert Francis: “How he teeters, skitters, tingles, teases, / Taunts them, hovers like an ecstatic bird, / He’s only flirting.” Only in baseball can the grand and legendary, the progressive and monumental reside next to, and perhaps thrive on, the loopy, the subversive, the angry. Such power and possibility in these names: Jackie Robinson, Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter, Joe DiMaggio, Cecil Fielder, Pearce ‘What’s the Use’ Chiles, Ty Cobb.
Is this not poetry? Another pursuit mistakenly thought as passive, where the careful accumulation of image can create the tender or forceful. Archibald MacLeish’s “The End of the World” is not about baseball, but in the pageantry of this particular circus, I find correlation. The best moments of baseball and poetry happen “quite unexpectedly.” The “top” blows off when, distracted by an overfilled cup of beer or a vendor screaming about peanuts, we hear the bat crack against ball, and watch it disappear into the blue. We know the ball will return, but for now it remains unseen, while it “hung over / those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes.” Even the most lackluster popup can drop, like a ton, on the grass, and what happens next is controlled chaos: coaches scream, the bench clears, the winning run on second sees the absurd possibility of home. This is the movement of poetry: like “a piece of ice on a hot stove.”
But what is that ice doing on a stove? Only Robert Frost knows, and we know he certainly loved baseball. It might have been his poultry farming background, the marriage of the pastoral and patience. He said, “nothing flatters me more than to have it assumed that I could write — unless it be to have assumed that I once pitched a baseball with distinction.” Frost thought of baseball as a form of prowess, and saw that as its “common ground” with poetry: both had “something to achieve, something to win or lose.” In the same way we are startled by a late-inning rally, we are shaken by a poem that prodded along until a charged final couplet, and perhaps we feel guilty that we did not see the beauty all along.
An exhibition and demonstration sport since the 1904 games, medals for baseball have only been awarded in five Olympiads. It is unfortunate that such a storied sport is absent on the world’s grandest athletic stage. Imagine, as poets are inclined to, the dramatic perfection of a gold medal no-hitter. Yet there is sufficient drama in a batter’s repeated foul balls as he battles against a determined pitcher on a full count, or the long, slow walk of a relief pitcher from the bullpen. The length of this game is what I find most beautiful and complex. Despite innings and outs, there is always the possibility that a baseball game could go on forever. This glimpse of the eternal is contrasted with the fear and pressure of the final out of the ninth inning. Even in the World Series, we know that these teams will live to play another day, but there is so much grace and terror in that moment before we all go our separate ways, before we take off our team’s caps and celebrate or sulk. We know that tomorrow the groundskeeper will mow lines of light and dark into the desolate outfield while summer help pull rakes along the infield. But in those tense final moments, the possibility of an eternal game can be snapped with a third strike, a caught line drive, a lazy runner picked-off at second. Calm cloaking intense drama. What else could we hope for in the world of sport?
Ever since Robert Frost said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down,” tennis and poetry have been locked in an embrace. Is it a forced embrace, like Scottish Andy Murray and the British public, or are they actually the perfect pair — the identical Bryan brothers doing their signature chest-bump, or a tennis racket strung with half gut half synthetic strings? For the last six years I’d claimed to be “sort of working on a poem” while watching tennis, a poem that progressed at the conveniently glacial rate of approximately two lines per year. Last year I had to admit that the poem was finished, and then, like the perfect arcing lob, this essay assignment arrived. A hundred hours of tennis watching later, there’s certainly a case to be made that watching tennis without the poetic tropes of simile and metaphor is no way to watch tennis at all. And, whether they’re aware of it or not, when the commentators are excited about a match, they hit these tropes hard.
My poetry antennae first perked up when I heard Brad Gilbert say of David Ferrer — with the kind of relish that most people reserve for the arrival of a bacon cheeseburger — “The little beast is diggin’ in!” In tennis circles, Gilbert is famous for his nicknames, calling Novak Djokovic “The Joker,” Maria Sharapova “Shazza,” and Ivo Karlovic “Dr. Ivo.” When this year’s American breakout star Brian Baker appeared (after a long absence due to injuries), it didn’t feel as if he’d fully arrived until Gilbert christened him “Baker’s Dozen” and John McEnroe, in a muddled but delightful metaphor, opined of his run at Wimbledon, “He’s gotta be loving this — talk about icing on the cake that wasn’t fully baked for Baker.”
David Foster Wallace (who as far as I know, was never asked to “call” a match, but oh he should have been) was a master of both metaphor and simile. In his famous essay for The New York Times, “Federer as Religious Experience,” he wrote:
Wimbledon is strange. Verily it is the game’s Mecca, the cathedral of tennis; but it would be easier to sustain the appropriate level of on-site veneration if the tournament weren’t so intent on reminding you over and over that it’s the cathedral of tennis. There’s a peculiar mix of stodgy self-satisfaction and relentless self-promotion and branding. It’s a bit like the sort of authority figure whose office wall has every last plaque, diploma, and award he’s ever gotten, and every time you come into the office you’re forced to look at the wall and say something to indicate that you’re impressed.
That’s the kind of simile there’s no time for when you’re calling a match, unless you’re Mats Wilander calling the final of the Australian open this year:
Well, it’s Australia day today and Roger Federer was having a big party at his house, and he’s got two huge security guards outside to not let Nadal in, and he punched them both out with one left hook, and he’s standing knocking at the door and Federer is now diminished into a little little little guy and Nadal, he’s just pushed past, ‘Out the way. Move over, I’m gonna have a beer, mate — out of your fridge.’
This kind of extended metaphor is a rarity — usually the comments fly by like an Isner ace — but occasionally the commentators get into a game of verbal tennis themselves. Here’s a quick point from this year’s French Open final:
Ted Robinson: This first 13 minutes is a significant Nadal opening statement. The jury may already be convinced.
John McEnroe: Case almost closed.
Here match as court case is the vehicle, one that Serena Williams concurred with in a leaked rap recording, “My name is Serena, on the court I serve them up, no subpoena!” I enjoy it when the players get poetic. Take this transformed cliché from Andy Roddick on losing the 2004 Wimbledon final to Federer, “I threw the kitchen sink at him but he went to the bathroom and got his tub.” Or this, from tennis great Virginia Wade, “It's difficult for most people to imagine the creative process in tennis. Seemingly it's just an athletic matter of hitting the ball consistently well within the boundaries of the court. That analysis is just as specious as thinking that the difficulty in portraying King Lear on stage is learning all the lines.” These are moments when the players — who we spend so much time analyzing, projecting our ideas onto — are really trying to tell us what it is like for them.
Why do the commentators and the players turn to similes and metaphors so often? Why do poets? Again, David Foster Wallace: “You more have to come at the aesthetic stuff obliquely, to talk around it, or — as Aquinas did with his own ineffable subject — to try to define it in terms of what it is not.” Having Serena Williams say, “I played amazing,” is true, but not memorable, whereas Maria Sharapova’s description of herself playing on clay as “a cow on ice” was so deeply evocative (because not despite the fact that she is decidedly not a cow and court surface is clay, not ice) that it has been repeated ever since. Indeed after winning this year’s French Open, her metaphor showed up in many of the headlines, such as “The Cow on Ice becomes Queen of Clay.”
Over the past six months, I’ve heard herds of comments in which the commentators compared tennis players to animals, a comparison that was made hilariously tangible in the popular blog, Capybaras That Look Like Rafael Nadal, which is worth a look, given its insanely high quotient of cuteness (I happen to adore capybaras and Rafa, who is sadly absent from the 2012 Olympics due to a knee injury). In my informal tallying, cats took their rightful spot in the animal pecking order — on top. There were heaps of references to “playing cat and mouse” and “pouncing on a serve” and even an implied cat via implied hairball: “In the end it’s Djokovic who coughs up the error.” I counted that as “cat metaphor,” but for balance, comments about “unleashing the forehand” as well as “he’s in no mood to roll over” and “got the yips on her serve” (am I willfully misinterpreting here when I picture a miniature malevolent Chihuahua perched on the racket?) were filed under “dog.” And I can’t help but mention Roddick’s appearance on the Ellen show, on which, when asked about his fast serve, he quipped, “My serve has killed a small dog […] I’m joking, I’m joking! The dog was huge!” Federer, on the other hand, is frequently compared to that most graceful creature, the gazelle. Only Andy Murray and Giles Simon had the dubious honor of being compared to insects: “Murray has spun his web”[Ted Robinson] and “This is why this guy [Giles Simon] is crafty and cool, he’s number twelve in the world. He’s like a gnat or a mosquito — just keeps at it.” This Wednesday, Justin Gimbelstob made the first marine reference I’d heard, “Hewitt’s a shark, always hunting, always moving — sharks never rest or sleep.”
Other categories of comparisons highlight some of our other human obsessions — food, war, money, machines, and other sports. Here, a few favorites:
Food: “A wonderful meaty blow,” “That shot had a little bit of additional mustard,” “first double bagel served up [a match where the score is 6-0 6-0] and “Murray feasting on Niemenen’s serve.”
War: “She needs to develop more weapons,” and “The guy is an absolute warrior.”
Money: “That’s a serve that could pay some serious dividends,” and “sent that back with interest.”
Transportation: “It’s been one way traffic ever since,” and “He righted the ship there after a dicey first set.”
Other sports: “The second serve is batting practice, especially on this side,” and “you can see he’s got that look — he’s on the edge… he’s been knocked into the ropes already…”
Machines: “The radar just slightly off on the forehand,” and “he’s like a buzz-saw, Nadal.”
Justin Gimelstob is the only commentator I heard actually refer to these parts of speech which are used so frequently. This week he described Stanislaw Wawrinka’s playing style, “the metaphor is the windshield wiper. He’s not linear.” Gimelstob (who is one of four calling the early rounds of Olympic tennis) is infamous for his horrendously misogynist comments in 2008 (which I will not reproduce here), and was dropped (briefly) by the Tennis Channel this March, because of this tweeted simile, “The Djokovic drop shot right now is a bigger bailout than Obama's fiscal plan, with comparable results, failure." His apology, “I wasn’t conscious of the power of words,” doesn’t ring particularly true, given a didactic I-am-a-human-dictionary (via Wikipedia, it seems) exchange with Brett Haber I heard this Saturday:
JG: “Federer plays with such relaxed calm, so much true confidence. The best word to describe it? Sprezzatura.”
BH: “God bless you? All right, you’ve gone full Roget’s Thesaurus on me. Sprezzatura? Would you please use it in a sentence?”
JG: Roger Federer plays with absolute sprezzatura — the art of perfecting the nonchalance, concealing all art and making whatever one does, says, appear to be without effort, and almost without any thought about it. Roger Federer is synonymous with sprezzatura.”
I’d say Gimelstob wields his words with “the precision of a surgeon,” to use a quote from the man himself (albeit describing Djokovic). He knew exactly what he was doing: casually slipping his politics into a simile sandwich.
A few weeks ago, I woke up from a dream in which I was standing in the middle of a tennis court and hundreds of tennis balls were falling from the sky all around me, making a storm of thuds. A bodiless voice asked me, “Why is your heart beating so fast?” Why indeed? Why does my heart beat faster as I watch a fellow human “move about a hard rectangle and seek to ambush a fuzzy ball with a modified snow-shoe” (as Eliot Chaze put it so succinctly)? Maybe because I fell in love with language and tennis around the same time, as a 6-year-old in England. Watching Wimbledon on television was a parent-sanctioned form of laziness, as was watching the Wombles (who happened to live in Wimbledon), furry creatures who recycled human garbage, and whose theme song, “Underground, overground, wombling free / The Wombles of Wimbledon Common are we…” I loved to sing that song. I still delight in the song’s rhyme and I remember the thrill of the word “womble” morphing into a verb.
Wimbledon has always had a more explicit relationship to poetry than most sports venues. Excerpts from Rudyard Kipling’s “If” (“If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;? / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;? / If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster? / And treat those two impostors just the same”?)are engraved above the entrance to Centre Court. In 2010, they appointed Matt Harvey as Wimbledon Championships Poet (seeing this, I felt that the trajectory of my life could have been different — if I’d been born a boy and stayed in England, could that have been me) The other Harvey’s comic verses can be found here. I particularly enjoy the rhyme in the conclusion to “Wimbledon Dreams:” “So many dreamers, with a common theme: / fame, prizes, praise, etcetera etcetera... // (But one will wake and still be Roger Federer” and the perspective in section four of “Umpirical Observations”: “[the umpire] sits for hours in the sun / in that high chair / yet is the only one /who never throws a tantrum.”
Now, as I watch the Olympic tennis from across the ocean, I’m attending the matches with both eye and ear, marveling at impossible shots, enjoying the iambic thump of the ball going back and forth, and listening for flashes of poetry from the commentators. I particularly enjoy the similes and metaphors that aren’t immediately clear unless you’re watching: “He babied that over.” (negative — John McEnroe on Djokovic), “Zakopalova airmails that return” (it goes long — Chris Fowler), and “Serena Williams versus Jelena Jankovic — one of the popcorn matches today” (positive—Brett Haber).
My favorite images from the opening ceremony were the little clouds on strings, which brought to mind McEnroe’s comment, “Federer seems to float above the court.” Federer as cloud? Why not!? We (poets, sports fans, commentators, players) use poetry’s tools to sharpen or complicate how we see the world. Poetry lifts us up, lets us see things with fresh eyes, as does watching our fellow humans engaged in what could be called a battle, a court case or a work of art.
This hasn’t happened yet. You won’t see this until Saturday, until Sunday, because you, like a swimmer, have to warm up to this, to build the capacity for endurance, from the gasp of the 100M freestyle (47 seconds or less) to a race that will last more than 14 minutes.
When the buzzers sound, there will be almost a mile of water ahead of the swimmers, 30 laps in a 50-meter pool — a “metric mile.” Most of the short events will be done. You will be ready to watch this. Anything longer is either beyond the threshold of human attention
or so far beyond the threshold of human endeavor there wouldn’t be enough people to have a meaningful race. There aren’t many people who do this, who want to or can, and, it would seem, not many people who will watch this.
I trained for this event, unknowingly, my entire
high-school swimming career but only once swam it competitively, in an exhibition heat at a YMCA Tri-State meet, in the Spring of 1989, the first time there were enough swimmers interested in this length. I would have given every 200M butterfly ribbon over for another chance at this. And another.
This is not a sprint. But it’s also not exactly not a sprint. You can’t keep a short-sprint pace for this length of time, but you have to open hot and finish hot. You need to be able to settle in, in the middle, and save something for the end.
The World Record for the 100M Freestyle is 46.91. Using the Haskell scale, this is 47 seconds at a heart rate of 180-200 beats per minute. If this could be extended linearly, someone could complete the 1500M in 11:43. But this is impossible.
The physiological problem is this: after four minutes
of maximum effort, four minutes of anaerobic work, the muscles generate enough lactate to begin choking themselves. Falling back into aerobic effort allows the muscles to move off this waste.
The 1500M World Record is 14:34.14 — a pace of 58.267 seconds per 100M, 25% slower than the 100M World Record pace. The difference, of 12 seconds per 100M, is a graph of the lactate threshold, the moment of acidosis, when your effort creates more lactate than your blood can move.
The whole race has the swimmer right on that line between the aerobic and the anaerobic, right on the lactate threshold, ready to move into high burn in the final laps.
Part of what you’re learning to do in any sport is how to manage your body. In the 1500,
you work in the upper end of the aerobic, learning almost to give too much.
Or how, after a visit to an osteopath, to manage the slow curving of my spine that’s begun to show in the x-rays. The therapists say swimming’s a good way to take some stress off
the skeleton, build the muscles that can keep me from getting more crooked, so what began extracurricular becomes more serious, a way to avoid the brace or the spinal rod.
Like Johnny Weissmuller swimming against his polio, I look for ways to spend more and more time in the water.
Now you’re over 500 meters in, beyond the distance of the other Olympic events. Yes, you can hold a sprint, or near-sprint, for 500 meters. But after that, you’ve got to back off. This is the middle of the race. You’re cruising, but you’re also holding back — moving yet waiting.
This is where you have to concentrate. Because all these laps can come to seem alike. You’re looking out ahead of yourself. You can see your arms, your hands, but not much else. At times, the flicker of a competitor in the periphery, but mostly lane-lines. The world is noise.
And therefore quiet. This is where you have to concentrate, making time meaningful as you’re trying to beat time. You move by memory, recreating the beat of a Roland 808 or a heavy-metal drummer in your ears, your legs. The more BPMs, the better. Planet Rock or South of Heaven.
You’ve memorized lyrics that in any other context will seem insipid (because they are), but this is your soundtrack, your rhythm.
Iron Maiden’s “The Loneliness Of The Long-Distance Runner”:
Keep the pace, hold the race
Your mind is getting clearer
You're over halfway there
But the miles they never seem
As if you're in a dream
Not getting anywhere…
I see a beautiful gigantic swimmer swimming naked through the eddies of the sea,
His brown hair lies close and even to his head, he strikes out with courageous arms, he urges himself with his legs,
I see his white body, I see his undaunted eyes…
This is how you keep from losing it in the whiteness of the white noise.
You write your own raps, lyrics, poems. With each race, you remember more words, write more.
Moby-Dick might have been written by a long-distance swimmer.
If the event were long enough.
Here’s where swimming becomes concentration. In a non-Olympic meet, a red board will be inserted into the water to alert the swimmer that this is the last length, but you’ll want to know where you are long before that, so you can pace yourself.
You need to be able to finish hot, too, to kick it in, to dig, to bring the pain, to even up, to ensure you never get too far behind, to keep everybody in evening distance, which means going anaerobic, then falling back, gauging, re-gauging, counting, re-counting, 170 BPM, 180.
At age 39, I can’t swim this way any longer, but when I’m writing, I feel this way: the world is all noise: the poem has to have a length, an end, a proportionality: the world is all quiet: I am touching all the thresholds of exhaustion: I want more.
Endurance conditioning was, then, training for writing long (or longer) poems: creating enough moment up front to get the poem (and the reader) into the development of a gesture both delicate (threshold) and durable, seemingly overwhelming but finally proportional, large enough to get lost for a time in another time.
You might lose the count, forget where you are, like this year’s second-seed US 1500-metrist, Connor Jaeger, at the national trials. In the final approach, instead of reaching for the wall, he turned, ready for another lap, losing a fraction of a second in the tumble. “I just kept swimming,”
he said, having lost the count. “I didn’t want to risk it.”
What came before, what came after? Where am I?
Did I begin swimming before my scoliosis diagnosis or after?
What year did I swim the 1500? Where are all my ribbons, my records?
Can I retrace my strokes?
These meltdowns happen. You lose the count. You lose some energy, some concentration trying to get it back. You push back over the threshold too soon, and the poem begins to fall apart. You got lost in the warble of a Kerry King guitar solo, tertiary motifs, Bambaataa’s bonus beats.
Analogy on analogy. George Breen, 1956 Olympics, Melbourne. Breen had broken the World Record by eight seconds in the preliminaries, so he was a favorite. He was swimming against Australia’s Murray Rose, with whom Breen was trading record times. Breen got out to an early lead, but Rose broke free
with only 400 meters to go and Breen never caught up. Even Japan’s Tsuyoshi Yamanaka, who’d lurked behind, overtook Breen for the Silver. You’re focused on a space ahead of you, a time far ahead. You don’t always catch the periphery, the wake of your competitor on the turn, you
may have burned more than you thought in the opening, failed to save enough for the end, may have swam to close to the lactate threshold, a hair over the line, and now, though your mind wants to call up more, the muscles can’t give any more. There isn’t enough
oxygen to make happen what you want to happen. If this were a trial, there would be time to revise, to reconsider, to get the approach to the final right, to manage the poem’s investments and disbursements, freeing the muscle from the purses of the arms at such critical moments.
If you were doing it again, you’d already be back in sprint by now, ready to pour power on power for the final hundred, that last turn, that last trope, the one that will finish and win memorably, persistently, burning itself into safety film or anthologies or instant-replay DVR recordings.
This is when someone should put a sign in the pool, but in Olympic events, this doesn’t happen. A horn is sounded, but you may not hear the horn. This is where you must concentrate, where you must have been concentrating, past, past-perfect, present, and future coordinated, all this time,
all this effort seeming now as prelude and as cause and as prolepsis and proleptic expression of this moment, the final gesture, the resolution, successful if measured, if anticipated, if the anticipation and the realization seem to create one another, to make the time and the distance into a unit.
Such that even after the water has dried from behind the ears, even after the wish of pages is memory rather than event, memory is event, the motion, the poem in your body. This hasn’t happened yet. This is already happening. Is always, noise and quiet. Is everything. Is one.