AUGUST 7, 2012
Image: “Alternate Olympics 2012 Logo“
One of the Components is How Long You Are in the Air:
On Poetry and Trampoline
MY HUSBAND AND I are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, waiting for inevitable bad news. We are sharing the Olympic Preview edition of Sports Illustrated from July 23rd because we’ve already read all the copies of People, Time, and Country Living. Over the last month, we have read every magazine in the waiting room twice over, except for this one, which is new, so we turn the pages together, and I try to figure out who is favored for Trampoline, a sport I agreed to write an essay on, though I know little to nothing about it.
For the past five years, we’ve lived in a mountainous part of Southwest Virginia — in the New River Valley, which is part of the Great Appalachian Valley. We are 30 miles from the West Virginia border. In our neighborhood, as in much of rural and suburban America, trampolines are a regular backyard fixture. They lie somewhere on the scale between ATVs and cars up on blocks, about on par with an aboveground pool. They are dangerous, the opposite of classy, and extremely fun. You can pick up a 15-foot round trampoline with a netted safety enclosure for $278 at the local Walmart in Christiansburg.
“You know the biggest story of the Olympics, right?” Steve says.
“No,” I tell him. I have no idea what the biggest story of the Olympics is. The enormous waiting room is empty but for us. The doctor has let us come during his lunch hour, so we can have more time with him. While we wait, a team of four hospital inspectors walk in with clipboards, looking like some kind of Olympic committee.
“It’s the competition between Blake and Bolt in the 100 and 200. Blake just works his ass off and Bolt claims he’s so good that he doesn’t need to.” Steve points to the pull quote in Sports Illustrated. “Nobody is going to run past me. I don’t worry,” says Usain Bolt, currently the fastest man on earth.
I am a champion worrier, but I was never a cutthroat opponent. As a poet, I am well-versed in failure. As a poet, I’ve found ways to compete sideways, take the less traveled paths. I write narrative poems. I write poems about sex and women’s bodies and babies. I write poems about Walmart. Apparently Trampoline gymnasts feel similarly. He Wenna, the 2008 gold medal winner in Women’s Trampoline, started as an Artistic Gymnast, but later switched to trampoline. In an interview, she said there were a lot of wonderful gymnasts in China, so it was very hard to become outstanding; I’m going to try Tramp, she said. One of my writing teachers, years ago, told me that it’s not his most talented students who go on to become career poets, but the most tenacious of them — the ones who just never stop.
I am tenacious. We have been trying to have a second child for the past three years. After cycles of medical treatments, and one disrupted adoption placement, we decided to try a last hail-Mary round of doctor’s appointments this month, where they found, years into our struggles, that my body has an injury from my son’s birth that they may or may not be able to correct. Some days, my body is an enemy, a source of shame; other days, I feel sorry for it, trying its best, not catching a break. “My self-betraying body needs to grieve,” writes Marilyn Hacker. There will be more travel and tests. There will be more waiting in doctors’ offices, in social workers’ offices. I have grown graceful at waiting.
It is Wednesday and I’m still trying to write this essay on poetry and Trampoline. I’m looking up terminology, reading about history. The trampoline was invented in the 1930s in a garage in Iowa by George Nissen, a University of Iowa gymnast, diver and inventor, who had, at one time, been a part of a traveling acrobatics act called the Three Leonardos. Nissen’s Spanish nickname while he was on tour with the act was “Campeón de Trampolin” — Champion of the Diving Board — and thus, the Trampoline was born and trademarked to the Nissen Trampoline Company.
There are three types of Gymnastics events at the Olympics: Artistic Gymnastics (the most popular and familiar of the disciplines), Rhythm Gymnastics, and Trampoline, which was introduced at the 2000 Olympic games in Sydney. A trampoline routine includes 10 skills made up of different combinations of somersaults and twists, performed at heights as great as 30 feet. Some sports commentators compare it to the equivalent of ten leaps off a three-story building. The routines last about 60 seconds each, and gymnasts must land and hold still for three full seconds at the end of their performance. The maneuvers have names like Fliffus and Triffus. Like Barani and Rudolph and Adolph and Crash Dive. Final scores are determined by combining difficulty, execution, and time of flight. According to Sports Illustrated’s Olympic Preview issue, in men’s Trampoline, Dong Dong of China is favored for the gold; for women’s, He Wenna of China is the frontrunner.
But it’s Wednesday, and Trampoline isn’t being broadcast until Friday and Saturday. Before I get anything substantial down on the page, I’m sucked in to watching the women’s quarter finals in Fencing — specifically, Individual Sabre. The arena is dark and two women — Mariel Zagunis of the USA and Zhu Min of China — stride in wearing jackets, plastrons, and knickers, holding their sabres with their masks tucked under their arms. The announcers say all or nothing; they say pressure on her shoulders; they say she fought to come back. It’s not clear which woman they are talking about. In high school, when I didn’t make the tennis team, I took up fencing — since no students had fenced before, it was an open team without tryouts. I am not naturally athletic. I also lack a serious competitive streak, which was a problem, as fencing is all about the competition, the crouching, the attack. A commentator reads a quote from Zagunis: “No matter what my opponent does, I have a game plan. I must execute it.”
Before today, Mariel Zagunis was the only Olympic women’s Sabre champion, as the sport was first included in the 2004 Summer Olympics, and she won gold medals in both 2004 and 2008. She did not, as it turns out, medal this year. She did win the match against Min though, which I watched in its entirety instead of writing about Trampoline. They riposted, they retreated, they parried. Sometimes the two women screamed while they lunged toward each other — guttural yeows of pent up aggression.
When the announcers interviewed Zagunis after winning her quarter finals match against Min, she said, “I’m going for a new championship. I never live in the past. I’m concentrating on the current.” In order to write a poem, I must mine the past, but also excavate the present, which becomes the future as I untangle it. As I do this, I exist only in the moment of writing the poem. I concentrate on the movement forward and forget I’m concentrating at all. But I have not been writing very many poems lately. My body is stuck in a strange limbo along with my family’s future, and I don’t have the language to describe it. When I do use the language I have, the poem’s bodies don’t shape themselves on the page in ways that feel right.
“The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account. / That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect,” wrote Walt Whitman. I would like to believe both of these things simultaneously — that all of our bodies are perfect as they are, that the accounting of them is meant to be difficult. One of my colleagues, Tom Gardner, often reads poems as maps of the poet’s thought process — clues to the way their minds move. And how closely in these Olympics I am scrutinizing the bodies of strangers and the way they move across our TV screen, rather than analyzing the bodies of poems for clues to the minds that shaped them. I am as interested in traces of movement as I am in the athletes themselves — the splash that follows a diver’s feet, the flashing of a fencer’s mask, the mat of the trampoline still shuddering after a gymnast’s routine.
On Friday, I finally get to watch men’s Trampoline — the qualifying round — and I am struck by how impossibly fast this sport moves, and how noisy it is. Every time a gymnast rebounds, the trampoline’s metal springs creak and stretch, and most surprisingly, you can actually hear many of the gymnasts exhale with a slight whistle when they reach the zenith of each bounce. On Saturday, I hear the women bound and rebound, propel themselves upwards, whistle-exhale. The announcer talks about the gymnasts, what each one loves about this sport — the height, the feeling of flight, hearing the wind in her ears. “I love this body / made to weather the storm…/ I love it clear down to the soft / quick motor of each breath,” writes Yusef Komunyakaa.
Poems are made of words that live in bodies — bodies shaped by line breaks, and fixed forever in space, on the page. Picture a gymnast in relation to the trampoline, the invisible line between the two driven equally by unseen forces of gravity and the gymnast’s own strength. When a poem is read aloud, it is a moment of flight. Its words are released into the air, into the spaces between breaths. Many poets, like Charles Olson and the Beats, see the line as an actual unit of breath. The white space left in the wake of the words is the breath materialized. When I was pregnant with my son, I had to re-lineate all my poems to shorten the lines, so I could speak them without becoming breathless.
I think of the air underneath Canadian Jason Burnett, who spins toward the arena ceiling with his eyes closed. The announcer says outrageously difficult and beautiful twisting position. When it’s Karen Coburn’s turn the next day, the same announcer says, the goal is to show that long body open every single time. The gymnasts, when they execute their routines, look like actual lines shooting through space. Lines are measure of sound, measures of meaning. When they are at their best, each line could be its own poem. If a line tries to carry too much, it can collapse under its own weight.
In Men’s Trampoline, as predicted, Dong Dong of China takes the gold. In a surprise ending for the women though, favored Chinese gymnast Ha Wenna falls on the rebound out of her last skill, and Canadian Rosannagh MacLennan wins a gold medal. The commentators say a lovely line. Nice execution. They say, let’s watch how she opens her body. Dear body. “Each line should be a station of the cross,” writes my old teacher, Charles Wright, which implies suffering. A line-break is, at its most basic, a hesitation between the spoken and unspoken. I am hesitating to speak any of this.
With trampoline, a gymnast’s job is to fight gravity, to use the power of her own body to propel herself upwards, to fly for 60 seconds, then finally stick a landing while the force of her own energy tries to knock her off her feet. So how to write when life has not been like the trampoline? When there has been, for a period of time, no flight, no fixed program, just a long stretch of held breath? The commentators say they train for this — they know how to fall.
In my one trampoline memory, my son, not quite five, and I climb on the trampoline together at a birthday party. We walk across the mat without falling, heading for the sweet spot in the middle, where, if you start to bounce, you catch air easily. In the center, flying is effortless. When I land on the trampoline, my son flies up, and when I jack myself higher, he braces himself for my landing. We are both laughing hard, harder. We are opening our bodies to the air.
LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!
“’Now,’ Aeneas announces, ‘let any man with heart, with the fire in his chest, come forward—put up your fists, strap on the rawhide gloves,’”
—Virgil’s The Aeneid, trans. Fagles
“As in dying and death, so in serious pain the claims of the body utterly nullify the claims of the world,” says Elaine Scarry in her book The Body in Pain. And the “claims of the world” are still being made when it comes to the U.S. presence in boxing at the 2012 Olympics. Scarry talks about war in her book, and, if the Olympics can be considered a war of sorts by the poet Virgil, there will be some bodies in pain come Sunday. Even with the advent of Laila Ali, even with the wisdom of Joyce Carol Oates, and even with world records and medals in international boxing competitions, people, men and women alike, still can’t seem to believe in Women’s Boxing. For the first time, it will be an official competition at the London Olympics. The 1902 “demonstration bout” doesn’t count. This year, three women will represent the U.S. in three different weight divisions: Marlen Esparza, six-time National Champion, our World Champion Bronze medalist, will compete in the Flyweight division; Quanita “Queen” Underwood, winner of bronze at the 2010 World Championship and five-time U.S. Lightweight Champion will compete in the Lightweight division; and Claressa Shields, two-time Junior Olympic National Champion will compete in the Middleweight division; and
What’s at stake? Virgil would say the wrath of the gods, Juno and Venus in particular, and, somehow, the U.S. men have already managed to piss off both of them. The men’s team posted the worst performance in U.S. Olympic history, they were completely swept, left without a medal to kiss on the podium (so far, at least, but I’m still pulling for Errol Spence, who got to “fight on” after winning on a technicality five hours after further review). The U.S. Men’s Boxing historical record? Forty-eight gold medals: the most won by any country by fighters like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Joe Frazier, to name a few. So, to make it plain, these women are our team; women boxers are not mythological beasts.
In The Aeneid, when Virgil writes about the boxing match between Dares and Entellus, the epic poem becomes a moral tale about willpower. No one will come forth to fight the young, virile Dares who challenges any man in the crowd to compete against him. We’re not talking about weight divisions and referees, either; this is before The Queensberry Rules, for you sports fans who don’t like epic poetry. So, to keep face for his hometown of Sicily, the old man, Entullus, throws down the gauntlet and steps up to fight:
With that challenge Entellus stripped his pleated cloak from his shoulders, baring his great sinewy limbs, his great bones and joints, and stood gigantic in the center of the ring.
Sometimes, as one contemplates being beaten they already are beaten. The belief in winning is so powerful and the fear of losing so debilitating that many fights can be summed up before the first round bell rings. It can be seen as they spar in their home gyms — some as if the gym isn’t big enough to hold their combinations, some as if they’re sucking their thumb in the womb — and it’s seen as they talk to their families and their trainers. I always look for the boxer who enters the ring with a sweat. The fighter’s heart rate is up, her body is warm, and her glare says, I own this ring. Mike Tyson almost always had that look in his eye; many of his fights were already won at the stare down. Claressa Shields has the look of a fighter who cannot lose. It’s clear that she believes she’s coming home with gold. Watching her spar with men, there’s little wonder why. Her father was a boxer, and at 11 years old, she was inspired to pick up the gloves. She believes, without a doubt, that she’s going to win. In a recent TV interview, she said that she’s entering London as if she’s at home in her gym, “and can’t nobody beat me in here.” I believe her.
Entellus is the more skilled, stronger fighter. We learn this later, once he cracks the prized bull’s skull — but he also gets tired and knocked down and counted out. Entellus, however, still believed he could win; though, it would not be easy:
….the giant’s full force poured in the crashing blow lands on empty air and his own weight brings him down, a colossal man, a colossal fall, he slammed the earth…
Marlen Esparza graduated in the top two percent of her class. Not too many boxers get to say that. The men’s bouts last for three rounds of three minutes each; the women’s, four rounds for two minutes each. There’s a one-minute rest interval between each round. What you’ll notice about Marlen Esparza is that she has what people called “perpetual motion” in the late great Henry Armstrong. When she enters the ring, she’s constantly moving, even when her opponents try to hold. When approaching her opponents, much like Armstrong, she employs a similar rocking back and forth style, which is hard to read. She doesn’t have the hard knocks story of her cohorts, Underwood and Shields, but she has a willpower honed through being underestimated. She mentions that being a Mexican-American woman is one of the hardest factors for her to overcome as a female boxer; too often, people don’t think she’s in the right place when she walks into a gym to strap on the gloves. She’s been proving the doubters wrong and making her father and trainer — the two people she cites as inspiration, in and out of the ring — proud. Esparza is not only the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, but she’s also the only one who served as president of her high school graduating class. She possesses a mental toughness and focus that most boxers learn later in their careers. Watch for her footwork and her counter punches, two qualities most underestimated in boxers; these are her strengths. She can slip a punch as well as give it, but in the final round, no matter the odds, you won’t see her on the retreat. She keeps moving forward.
What Dares didn’t understand is that Entullus had been hit many times before, had been declared a champion before, and had been hit hard before in those battles — knocked down, even — but fought back to win. Entullus didn’t fear any fighter; he was the quintessential badass:
The champion, never slowed by a fall, unshaken, goes back to fight and all the fiercer, anger fueling his power now…
When we talk about armchair quarterbacks, we’re usually talking about guys who comment on NFL games in their TV rooms with a beer can balanced on their bellies, years after their high school football games have passed them by. But many spectators of boxing have never boxed, and many have never even been in an actual fight.
The biggest surprise to anyone who has never been in a fight is being hit.
Skipping rope, practicing your combinations by shadow boxing, hitting a speed bag, and doing roadwork can’t prepare you for getting hit. As a kid, the first time I got hit by another kid, I stood there crying as he took my bike. My mom, doing her best Burgess Meredith impression (1976 was a good year for boxing!), sent me back to claim it. I punched the kid off my bike and to the ground in front of his three brothers, all of whom looked as surprised as I was when I rode off with it. I was hooked. This was just in time for me to enjoy watching the 1976 Olympics in Montreal where Sugar Ray Leonard fought for and won the gold against the Cuban welterweight Andres Aldama.
Both Leonard and Aldama had great footwork, easily slipping each other’s punches and breaking clean from holds into precise combinations. Leonard danced, circling to the left, just outside of Aldema’s lead foot, but he maintained a wide stance, packing power into each punch. What was clear about both boxers was that neither was afraid; they just respected the skill of the other. Howard Cosell sounded almost as if he favored Cuba when he commented that, “They’re all so sleek looking, those Cuban fighters […] Leonard must continually escape that southpaw lead [the right hand].” And I admit now that my favorite at the ’76 Olympics was actually the Cuban heavyweight boxer, three-time gold medal winner Teofilo Stevenson, who recently died this past June.
The biggest surprise to a boxer, after knocking an opponent down, is seeing that fighter get up to fight some more. In his autobiography The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring, Leonard reveals that he was subjected to sexual abuse by one of his then trainers for the Olympics. No one knew, no one could have even dreamed, that any of this was lurking behind him as he fought his opponents in the ring. But for Queen Underwood, the sexual abuse she experienced at home has been news that, at times, has eclipsed her masterful boxing. Her road to gold has been the one less traveled; Esparza and Shields both got byes in the first round. They only need to win one match to get bronze. Underwood fought the British hometown favorite Natasha Jonas on August 5th and lost in a 21-13 Decision. Jonas will now face the Irish champion, Katie Taylor, who many consider the best woman boxer in the world.
Although Taylor beat Underwood three times before, I still picked Underwood to win. In fact, I picked her to win because she’s lost to Taylor three times before. Underwood is a finisher; she usually gets better as the rounds wear on. Against Jonas, she was ahead in the first round, but the hometown crowd got in her head, and she didn’t fight her fight in the later rounds. She told The Ring magazine that she was disappointed:
“I filled a spot that somebody could have had but I gave away half my life for this and it just doesn’t feel like the reward of being here is enough,” Underwood said. “I just wish and hope that the fans and people who have been there and my family can believe the journey was enough and I’m a champion regardless of the decision. That’s where it ends with me is being a champion and pushing for it since I didn’t get the gold medal here.”
Despite her elimination, I think Queen Underwood will have a long career, and will be voted most improved fighter over time. Auspicious beginnings don’t always play out well for boxers. When Mike Tyson had his first-round winning streak, I think this is the element that finally brought him down: the surprise of losing. If Underwood gets past this loss to Jonas, she will go on and have a good career. Like Entellus, these Olympic games are Underwood’s chance to get up off the canvas. There was no visible sign of worry in any interview with Queen Underwood prior to her bout on August 5th; she knew that she had to show up to fight, no matter what, and she knew she could win. And, with the swagger that she’s bringing to the ring, media reports stopped focusing on her personal life and started positioning Underwood as the fighter Taylor had to beat — not the other way around. I think Underwood will face both Jonas and Taylor again, and I think she’ll be a very different fighter as a result of this disappointment.
Yeah, I’m with Virgil on everything he said. And I’m with Shields, Esparza, and, yes, Underwood, too. It’s on. In the end, these three women will show up to fight, and that will be all they will have to prove to the world.
“…Here, in victory, I lay down my gloves….”
SIX MINUTES AND ONWARD: WRESTLING, LONG POEMS, AND TIME
As someone who once wrestled, what I appreciate is the narrative of the match. The ritual. Wrestlers receive points for putting opponents into predicaments. Wrestlers attempt different moves and holds on their opponents — the leg sweep, the hip throw, the headlock. There are different styles of wrestling — freestyle, which is the type of wrestling I learned, and Greco-Roman, which forbids the use of foot or leg sweeps, as well as grappling below the waist. Most people know about the pin, which is also known as the fall. Many people know about takedowns, which means bringing an opponent from a standing position to a position of vulnerability on the mat. Points are scored for aggression but also for ambition — moves or holds that may put the wrestler at risk of getting pinned. The circumstance of the encounter between wrestlers happens on a soft, even plane. There are zones on that plane. The passivity zone. The central wrestling zone. Out of bounds. Combat occurs within these zones as the wrestlers move in and out of passivity, into the core. The wrestlers watch the referee. They watch the scoreboard for the time. They watch each other. The event consists of two three-minute periods. Whoever wins the most periods wins the match. If the match is tied by the end of the second period, the match goes into overtime or “the clinch.” There are three opponents in wrestling — the self, the other wrestler, and time.
Another poet told me that poems were like tattoos. That you needed to “go big or forget about it.” I will never get a tattoo on the inside of my ankle. I’ve seen guys at the gym with an inked barbed wire tattoo around their biceps and no other ink. A half-commitment. If I were to get a tattoo, I would get a massive tattoo on my back. On my high-school wrestling team, there were guys who had no necks and bodies that looked like tree trunks heavy with graffiti. They pulled crackling old wrestling shoes from their lockers. Their shoes creaked when they shoved them over their ankles. They all had scars. Muscle aches. Beside them, I was unadorned.
I was in constant discomfort in high school because I was the worst wrestler on the wrestling team. In my yearbook, someone has written “you” on my picture with the team. Honestly, though, I’m not sure that’s me. We were told to put on our “mean faces” and to place our forearms against our knees, pressing them so the pressure of the knee would push the meat of our arms outward, making us look thicker. I think I’m smirking a little in the picture, maybe grimacing.
I pace when I’m in the midst of writing a poem. I step away from my desk. I distract myself. I move. I have a morning full of ritual. So much of my time before actually writing is committing myself to the ritual of sitting down. William Stafford wrote every morning just after waking up. I can’t do that. I have to check off items in boxes. The morning itself needs to find a fixed form. In wrestling, it’s important to be unpredictable. During the handshake ritual, I’d jog in place before shaking my opponent’s hand. I’d roll my head along my shoulders. I’d crack my knuckles. I’d loom. Here, though, the poems always manage to dictate their own pace. There is never enough time for them so we must devise a structure for them. A way to size them up. A way to pull them down and hold them tight.
My wrestling singlet was standard issue. It was made from a nylon/lycra blend, so it stretched but it didn’t breathe. The singlet is a piece of equipment with purpose. It not only needs to cover up the private areas of the wrestler, but it needs to cling tightly to the wrestler’s body in order to prevent an opponent from using the singlet for the purposes of grappling or taking down the wearer.
I wrestled in the 130lb/60kg weight class. My build was problematic for my singlet — for the sport. I had short legs, a long torso, and very little muscle, so my singlet stretched tightly around my inner thigh and crotch region. The straps dug tightly into my shoulder. It felt like someone had taken the soft leather pocket of a slingshot — the part where you place the projectile — pulled the elastic straight down as if preparing to shoot a pebble at a flock of high-flying game birds, and hesitated with the elastic at full stretch. All of the team’s singlets were hand-me-downs, and in every singlet, there was the ghost of someone else’s body. I’m sure Olympians have tailored singlets, and I imagine the fit on theirs won’t be an impediment to their wrestling abilities as my singlet was to mine.
The sport of wrestling is a ready metaphor for struggle. If you are dealing with personal turmoil, you can be described as “wrestling with something.” You can be “grappling with issues.” In T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” after a lyrical deluge, Eliot is left with “the intolerable wrestle/With words and meanings . . . “, wondering whether his poetic efforts matter.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Rulon Gardner, an American who grew up on a Wyoming dairy farm, defeated Alexander Karelin. Karelin was the gold medal winner in Greco-Roman wrestling for the 1988, 1992, and 1996 Olympic Games. He hadn’t lost a match in 13 years. They were a study in contrasts. Gardner was doughy. Baby-faced, but recognizably a man shaped by work on a farm. Karelin was chiseled. His muscular abdomen looked engineered. He had nicknames: “The Russian Bear,” “Alexander the Great,” “The Experiment.” He had a signature move called the “Karelin Lift” where he would hoist an opponent from the mat, straight up into the air, and slam them back down to the mat. It was an uncommon move for the 130kg weight class because it required immense strength. Karelin had defeated Gardner in previous bouts, but what won the day for Gardner was his guile. He had studied “The Russian Bear’s” technique and knew that elusiveness would be the key to winning the bout. And so Gardner moved. Twisted. Prevented the Russian from grabbing his singlet and executing his signature move. Because Karelin lost his grip on Rulon, he was penalized a point and thus lost the gold medal.
Imagine how long six minutes must have seemed to Gardner. Watching the clock as six minutes move achingly slow. The match actively stopping time. The agony of the body and of the mind’s awareness of the body has ways of stretching minutes into hours. The long, fibrous muscles stretched taut, pulled by the arms of another.
We’d chug whole packets of sugar to gain a short speed burst prior to our matches for our “Angry Six Minutes” as our coaches called it. We’d skip meals. We’d run wind sprints or vigorously jog in place. Once, I wrapped Saran wrap around my waist, wore a thick fleece sweat suit, and ran up and down bleacher steps for 15 minutes prior to a wrestling match in order to lose a pound. Our coach gave us chewing gum and had us spit into cups to cut down our water weight. Drinking water was forbidden. Thirst was weakness but a gulp of water also meant the difference between one weight class and another. While I didn’t see it or hear it firsthand, some of my teammates swore some of our other teammates were binging and purging themselves. We spent much of the wrestling season angry and faint.
When I look up from the computer screen or the notepad, the world changes. When I perform the same task of drafting a long poem, the day carries with it particular expectations, but the day is never the same. Sometimes, there’s laundry. There are always dishes to be cleaned, but sometimes pans. My sons need help getting dressed. The world’s chores spill from the window. So then you look back at what you’ve done on the screen or notepad and wonder whether it was truly enough. But the day moves forward and before I know it, the trajectory of the poem I’ve been chasing has veered off in another direction. The poem slides past my grasp.
The condition of a wrestler in relation to his or her opponent is governed by the condition of his or her opponent. To be a wrestler is to inflict intentional discomfort on the self for the glory of mastering one’s body in relation to space. To wrestle means to encroach upon someone else’s physical space, hold your position within that space for a set duration, and prevent the opponent from interfering with you as you control his or her space.
Gardner shifts from side to side, moving Karelin’s arms out of the way. His constant counters frustrate the Russian. Karelin’s arms shoot forward. Gardner’s body backs away sharply. They twist their limbs at the center of the mat. Their arms lock for an instant before Gardner shifts away. They clutch and move away in a lumbering dance. The referee issues a “Passivity” warning on Gardner. And indeed, it does look like Gardner is stalling. Looking for a way in without putting himself at risk.
In wrestling, you are judged for your activity. How aggressively are you seeking out your opponent? How much time are you spending in a submissive position? Are you trying to get out of that position? In poetry, simply scribbling does not move the score. Eyeing the subject, circling about it, and getting ready to surge forward will not put the poem in your grasp. Busyness doesn’t move the judge. Simply scribbling, biding your time, reading, is seen as idleness to the non-writer. To the writer, it is a flurry of activity. The trouble, then, is that writing a long poem suffuses idleness and activity over a sustained period. Nothing happens. Everything happens.
One of our wrestling exercises was called “bridging.” In order to “bridge,” you had to have your back on the mat. You then had to raise your body up off of the mat using your legs and your neck muscles. Your belly had to rise towards the ceiling and your arms had to be crossed over your ribs. This exercise strengthened your neck muscles but was also the key way for wrestlers to wriggle out of getting pinned. Holding this position was painful. Our coaches demanded that we maintain bridge positions for two-minute intervals. The wrestler’s body, when placed on a plane above the mat during this exercise, is in a position to bear its own weight and the weight of another person with only the head and the legs.
Karelin is tired. He breathes heavily. He cannot move Gardner. He cannot apply his “Karelin Lift” because the strength required to apply the throw has long ebbed. Gardner is at the center of the mat with his arms stretched outward. He turns himself into stone.
Wrestling, at its core, is about the control, mastery, and manipulation of bodies. A wrestler who is fully dedicated to his or her sport will subject him or herself to bodily indignities in order to make or maintain a particular wrestling weight. To fashion yourself into an Olympian means to make an agreement with pain. The Olympic risk means an understanding of Olympic pain and a willingness to encounter that pain. Furthermore, Olympic wrestling is a public spectacle. The athlete is a public artist who practices his art before our eyes, blurring the boundary between his body and the audience around him. When we respond to an event that moves us, we say we are having a “visceral experience.” The phenomenon of an individual’s mind comprehending the emotional event of victory or defeat creates a condition within the body for both the athlete and the observer.
Gardner learned something in his prior meeting with Karelin. The way to beat Karelin is to score on Karelin and then let the clock run. For much of the match, Gardner is flat on his stomach, pancaked out so the space required to turn him over is greater. He feels Karelin at his side, probing for a hold. Some leverage. A way to lift Gardner’s body above the mat and back down again for the takedown, but Gardner has made his body so large. So difficult to turn.
The logic of every wrestling match is determined through contact and instinct. Every opponent generates the law that determines his or her defeat. Such knowledge is acquired through study. Through time and experience. To be a poet is to be someone who attempts to reconcile qualities of the world with the individual. In A.R. Ammons’ essay, “A Poem Is a Walk,” he writes:
Knowledge of poetry, which is gained, as in science or other areas, by induction and deduction, is likely to remain provisional by falling short in one of two ways: either it is too specific, too narrow and definite, to be widely applicable — that is the principles suggested by a single poem are not likely to apply in the same number or kind in another poem.
The way an opponent moves governs the way you must move in a match; so too, the movement of a poem. The long poem is governed by what is known, but also by what is experienced as it is happening or has happened. The direction or aim of the poem must be malleable.
After his defeat at the hands of Gardner, Karelin retired from wrestling and became a politician. The man dubbed “The Meanest Man in the World,” Karelin has been known to read and write poetry. He is considered a hero in Russia. When Putin’s Unity Party needed a political boost, it selected Karelin to run for a seat on the legislature. Karelin has clearly left the wrestling mat for other pursuits, but Rulon Gardner wants to return. Gardner appeared on NBC’s reality TV show, The Biggest Loser. For the 2000 Olympic competition, Gardner wrestled at the 130kg weight, roughly 280 pounds, but during the airing of the show, he weighed 474 pounds. His weight loss during the show was dramatic. He lost 140 pounds before he quit. He still wants to wrestle. He wishes he were in London.
In our post-wrestling lives, the tattoos have stretched into indeterminate ink patches. Some of us have abandoned our athletic ambitions. At night, staying up late trying to retrace the path of a long poem, I imagine that some of us are remembering how our arms felt. Our legs. There we are in front of the mirror, brushing our teeth or washing our faces, and yet the shadows from the bulb are cast in new angles. We are miraculously and simultaneously distinguishable and indistinguishable to ourselves.
THE GOALKEEPER’S SOLITUDE: A BAEDEKER FOR POETS
by Lytton Smith
for CM, KT, and the rest
El Loco. El Gato. Fatty. The Panther. The Bullet. The Loner. Odd-woman-out. Safe-as-houses. Shot-stopper. Calamity. Golden Gloves. The Black Octopus. Butterfingers. The Oaf. Green Giant. The Outsider. El Chopo. De Muur. The Guardian. Die Katze. The Lighthouse. The Bear. Tiny. Little. Flash Lightning. Stretch Armstrong. Kamikaze. The Magician. Lone Wolf. Last Man Standing. The Stranger. Last Line of Defence. Numero Uno.
You are called any or all these names. Some are a mark of respect, some a sign of your opponents’ fears. Others are badges of shame, past errors carried into the present.
You are never simply the goalkeeper.
You don’t have to be mad to play here, so they say.
Here is a line: a point that stretches visibly across space.
Some cross themselves before beginning, some look to the heavens. For my part, I like to feel the line’s width, to tread its distance. I sidestep 12 yards right until I can touch the goalpost, jump to touch the crossbar. Turn, sidestep, repeat on the other side, so I am centered in the goal-frame. There’s safety in the line.
A line: a point that becomes visible by its edges, by what happens at each terminus. Even the prose poem is written with a sense of how the line breaks, of the white space that borders each edge. A turning, returning.
The goalkeeper has been exiled from the rest of the pitch for a forbidden desire: to play football with her hands.
She spends her days at the line-edges of being. Her existence is a study in lines, a life in rectangles not of her making: the six-yard box, where her word is nine-tenths of possession, lies inside the penalty box, where her hands conjure the course of events.
Transgress the lines of the box if you must. ’Keepers have done so and turned goal-scoring heroes. Or they have become dispossessed. To stray beyond the lines is to imply you are through with your visions, that you wish to join the mêlée.
It is all a matter of voice. You will need to throw your words as much as the ball. No one else sees where you are, what you do. Your worldview is architectonic, it superintends. You are tasked with communicating your vision to the rest of the team.
Yours is the barbarous yawp and also gentle talk, the thunderous roar and the whisper in the ear.
As Team USA beat North Korea by a goal to nil, we see little of Hope Solo (named at birth a goalkeeper). Her teammates hear from her constantly. The goalkeeper is a mynah bird. Her power lies in what she can do to others with language.
“It’s very difficult to take your eyes off the forwards and the ball and watch the goalie,” Bloch said. “You have to tear yourself away from the ball. It’s a completely unnatural thing.”—Peter Handke
While the poets have been seen as visionaries, that title more fairly belongs to the goalkeepers, who spend 90 percent of their game imagining the future. The camera ignores the ’keeper, only bringing her into view when the ball threatens the goal. While no one’s watching her, she’s calculating likely angles, predicting where her opponents will be in 30 seconds. The attacker wonders how the goalkeeper saved his shot? She lives two seconds in the future. Just enough.
At 14, I earn a new nickname: Let-in.
Our opponents swing a corner in waist-high, across the front of my goal, bisecting the six-yard-box. Anything in here must be the ’keeper’s: if it’s not in your hands, it’s in the back of your net.
I grasp at it, spill it forwards, it bounces away. I’m reaching forwards as our defender throws his knee at it to heft it clear. The ball thumps off my chest, into our goal. Let down. Let-in. Lytton.
There’s no more wearying feeling than picking the ball from the back of the net where it’s nestled and still. You will replay what happened for nights. For years.
Here is also a paradox:
You play the game in the future: imagined event. The inevitable happens, and you’re returned to the past to relive to relive your failure. If I’d placed my feet differently, gone the other way.
I spend one season in blind rage. I snarl, swear at anyone approaching my goal. I am beaten time out of mind, grow ever angrier. I will not be contained. My teammates bring me back, teach me again the safety in keeping the line.
The goalkeeper, like the panther, bursts to motion from still. This is a meditative art. The breath, entering and leaving.
Without paradox, no juxtaposition. Without juxtaposition, no poetry?
The poet was lauded, then banished, for the crime of being transformative, of having more than one techne. The poet is dangerous because she will not stay in one role.
To be as you are, you must be a mathematician and know how to narrow the angle, that reverse metonym in which the goal becomes smaller as the attacker approaches. A telepath also, seeing what lies inside the attacker’s heart. Animal, a reflex, able to quell your rational mind. A philosopher, weighing which knowledge will serve you. An acrobat, found in the leap from thought to deed.
You think with your hands, spring from your feet: live wire, line in motion.
What of London 2012? No one will tell the goalkeepers’ stories, least of all the goalkeepers themselves. Who can still see Jack Butland in their mind’s eye, full length denying the Uruguayans?
We spectators thrill for the highlight, the impossible save, the moment a sure version of the future was derailed by the ’keeper’s thrown palm. But goalkeeping is a ninety-minute game. Context is king.
We complain Spain disappointed us, failing to score, heading back from the rain with us left empty-handed. What of De Gea’s saves, of the sight of the ball nestled in the cradle of cupped gloves when by rights it belonged in the back of the net?
“He has to fill a position in which the principle is forced upon him that ‘it is good for a man to be alone’ — a position which is distinctly personal and decidedly individualistic in character.” Welsh goalkeeper Leigh Roose, writing in 1906, returns us to solitude.
Soloists, though, are never alone; they’re always contoured by other musicians. The soloist takes up the line of the piece and brings it back to the rest of the group.
For Roose, “a good goalkeeper, like a poet, is born, not made.” Yet England legend Peter Shilton hung by his arms from the bannister for hours, trying to eke out a half-inch more of height.
The goalkeeper is not like the poet. A simile is not enough; a comparison begs only the differences.
Neither goalkeeper nor poet can be called a job, a profession, an entry on the biographical page of your passport. Each is a way of seeing, a practice of moving in response to the world: you measure, imagine, forecast, wait, leap into action.
To go unnoticed is not to lack consequence. While we are aware of the goalkeeper only at times of crisis, she has been there all along, watching and commenting. Within the lines a soloing voice.
How different the world would be if everywhere we switched the terms poet and goalkeeper.