Sunday, March 26, 2017

Kevin Varrone's BOX SCORE: An Autobiography of Zeroes

[I'll be delivering this talk in Ottawa, Kansas on Friday. In the meantime, I highly recommend Kevin's book; I've read it a dozen times now, and it has rewarded every go around the bases.]

Kevin Varrone’s Box Score: An Autobiography of Zeroes

On April 20, 2007, the Cardinals played the San Diego Padres at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu. They won the first game, 2-1, in front of a crowd of 37,382; the game lasted two hours and 34 minutes and was played in 80 degree weather, clear skies, with no wind. Mostly I remember the strange shape of the field, modified from football; there were acres of foul ground, lots of cheap outs. I remember that it was billed as a home game for the Padres, but that at least a third of us wore red. At least half of what I just remembered came from the box score, which can be found on-line. The other half of my memories are mostly emotional: I was excited to see Willie McGee, and I attended the game with my future husband, a new baseball fan. Meanwhile, behind us a long conversation transpired between two older colleagues. In slow and looping fashion, and by way of baseball, they told each other the story of their lives: games they’d watched, events that had occurred during games, one father’s stroke. As my one now retired colleague, Arnold Edelstein, had written in a review (Biography 14:3, 1991) of The Baseball Encyclopedia, edited by Rick Wolff, and published in 1990: “Proust had his petite madeleine; baseball fans have the Encyclopedia.” The only World Series game Arnie attended occurred while his father, an ardent baseball fan, was dying at home; he used a ticket proffered by a relative to distract him. At the game he attended, played on October 3, 1953, Mickey Mantle homered with the bases loaded. In his brief but profound review, Edelstein argues for the importance of the encyclopedia not so much as a repository of information (Mantle’s heroic feat) but as goad to intense emotions (like the association of that home run with his father’s stroke and later death).

Arnie and his friend were practicing the oral form of story-telling, but baseball’s stories are also recorded in writing. The box score is not narrative; it’s short hand; in fact, there are no sentences, only lists of line-ups, what each player did in the game, and summaries of batting, fielding, and pitching. A box score is fossil to the game’s living body. But like a fossil, it’s a guide to memory. A game I remember better, albeit very imperfectly, is the 6th game of the 2011 World Series, the crazy game won by a David Freese homer in the 11th inning. I remember that Series, in part, because I have a line-up card pencilled in by David Freese from the 7th game on my wall; I bought it for the Pencils for Promise charity. The line-up card reminds me of the drama’s characters; a box score tells me the significant plays of the game; the full DVD set of that World Series holds in its silence on the shelf underneath our television the promise of total recall. Each version of the game, the one dimly remembered, the one pencilled into the box score, and the one watched again, liberates an emotional field for me. I remember my son slamming his door during Game Six when we’d all given up hope. I remember screaming with joy at the end.

Kevin Varrone’s Box Score: An Autobiography is a book of prose poems about becoming a Phillies fan. As he wrote to me in a facebook message: “The book was meant to end with the end of spring. Box Score had a mind of its own. Long story short: I clearly can’t write a short poem about baseball. Also, 6/18=a fairly important date in Philly history (day the Brits left the city during Revolusion; official day of ‘founding’ of Philly by William Penn, etc.), but I wanted the game itself to be insignificant, historically. Just important in the ways all baseball games are, for those of us who love the game. Anyhow, it was as close to the end date of Spring that year that the Phils had a home game I could attend.” The game he chose was between the Phillies and the Twins, June 18, 2010, a game won by the Phillies 9-5. In the book, this game unfolds in blurts between other observations about personal and political history.  It’s fragments of a box score set against the ruins of every other obsession in the book: his father, his two sons; his poetic lineage by way of quotations from the poets who helped form this book; the eephus pitch; several cases of the yips, and floating quotations from Goodnight Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown. The full-length book came out first as a free app. It featured collages, audio of friends reading the poems, and included a shuffle function. The book itself, published by Furniture Press in 2014, has no page numbers, a(nother) fact that encourages the reader to open the book at random, wander around, find his or her own route to the ball.

Let me have Kevin to read the first two prose poems. I’ll then talk us through what he’s doing.

This opening poem can be compared to the abstract at the opening of Williams’s Paterson; in this short poem, we find many of the elements of the whole. You could read any section and have the same effect. Rather than follow linear chronology, these poems trace the circular history of our emotions; the circle that encloses the box where we find the score, before we realize that, “what happens between innings [hence not in the box score] is pretty much what life is all about.” What is a box inside a circle but a stadium built around a baseball diamond? What is history, but passed time or pastime: “when I’m sure there is nothing going on I step inside: the way you enter history a pastime”[.]

The second prose poem contains the keyest of the key words, spinning like mantras, in this book: “father.” Ray Kinsella plays with his father’s ghost, a comic revision of Hamlet playing with his. Varrone’s father, a NYC policeman based in Queens, introduced him to baseball and coached him in Little League. He’s quoted throughout the book. The phrase, “my dad used to say,” occurs at least 15 times in 82 pages. Varrone’s sons appear often, as well; Asher has three appearances in the text, while the older Emmett has twelve. If you’re keeping score, that makes for over 30 references to fatherhood in the book, one on more than every third page. Here’s a passing down, lineage of stories and poetic puns (“are we going home,” one son asks; the other says, “we’re playing catch ball”). They both hear their father (or mother) read Goodnight Moon to them, as do we. The poet’s dad tells his son to play baseball “the right way”; he’s also a compelling story teller, just as his son is a brilliant poet. The form of the book suggests that lineages are not fast balls but curves, or even the eephus, curving slowly up in the sky like a seagull and then coming down toward the home plate. Both baseball and its eephus “disrupt the flow of time & are tied to it.” As such, their lineages are also poetic.

I’ve seen seagulls at ball games (dozens of them once in Detroit), but not “a nightingale’s pastoral evasions.” Unless it was played outside John Keats’s cottage on Hampstead Heath, no one’s seen or heard a nightingale at a baseball game. So whence the nightingale’s pastoral? Clearly this is a bird that never wert (Shelley now!) at any MLB game, but lived in a poem, “Ode to a Nightingale.” “Cold pastoral” comes to us from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and references eternity. Just as players come to us in long lines of “begats,” so do poets. Harold Bloom’s notion of the younger poet mishearing the elder occurs when, for example, “George ‘Will’ Oppen” is quoted as writing that baseball “does not & never did have any motive but to achieve clarity.” Or when, in a typical elision of baseball and word poet, when Varrone writes of the “nothing that is not there & the nothing that is is pretty much what the eephus is all about sd mark fidrych or wallace stevens.” Poets and birds have often been equated, so here a pitcher (Fidrych's nickname was "Bird") might be a bird and a poet’s lines might fold into baseball’s language. More surprising perhaps is the entrance of Emily Dickinson onto the field: “those evenings of the brain are pretty much what night baseball is all about sd Emily Dickinson” who then throws to the next poet, quoted as saying “or the apparition of those faces in the stands at Shibe Field,” namely Ezra Pound. There’s an all-star team of poets playing on Varrone’s team, because “language is pretty much what baseball is all about” [.] Among these poets are Bill Lee and Fidrych, quoted as saying, “I’m a little flakey . . . people say I should be a lefty” [.] (Varrone and I both write right handed and throw left, a flakey combination.) It’s all one big game of catch ball between poets and baseball players.

A short list of all-star poets includes Dickinson. Oppen, Moore, Stevens, Olson, O’Hara (if only by allusion), Hopkins, Walcott and others. What these players throw around are words, and words blur together. Take the name, Williams. There was William Carlos and there was Ted: “marianne moore called william carlos williams the splendid pencil :ted williams sd to rip sewell (whose real name was truett banks sewell) throw that blooper sewell bill dickey told williams to kind of run at it williams sd & he did & hit a dinger (no ideas but in eephus) it was all stars 1946 & williams was between stint as a marine corps aviator” [.] Between stints, between names. The word “eephus,” which comes up obsessively in the book, becomes the “thing” of William Carlos Williams’s “no ideas but in things.” Ted Williams should have been out for running toward the super slow pitch that he hit out in an All Star Game. That fact is, of course, lost in the box score to the game. There’s grainy video to think on, but it doesn’t count.

Video hasn’t counted for much except bad feeling until the recent replay rule was instituted in most rudimentary form in 2008 (only by umpires for disputed home runs) and later in 2014, when the call for replays by managers was instituted. That accounts for one of the many moments of failure that haunt the poet. He’s concerned mostly with the yips, but he writes often about the game pitched by the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga in 2010 that would have been perfect had the umpire, Jim Joyce (who wept in public the day after), not mistakenly called a runner safe with two outs in the ninth. To Varrone, obsessed as he is with memory (either private or set on the page as a box score), failure is important because it’s so memorable. It’s also one of the great tropes of American literature. Late in the book he writes, “would anyone remember jim joyce if he’d gotten the call right & armando galarraga hadn’t made that smile break into blossom across his face”[?] That memory is a bit different from the one that follows in this poem, namely the one that fixes Rick Ankiel in our memory because only he and Babe Ruth had 10 wins and 50 home runs in the majors. The latter is a box score memory. But my memory of Rick Ankiel is all emotion. His five wild pitches for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2000 playoffs, when he was tasked with pitching the first game because he’d been so phenomenal during the year, are five pitches I watched then, but cannot watch now without a visceral response. I flinch in horror, more horror than any game merits. There is redemption in the Ankiel story, because he came back as an outfielder, making some world-historical throws to third and home from center field. That, too, is compelling, more than his 11-7 record in the 2000 regular season, or his lifetime .240 batting average. It’s compelling because it’s a biblical story of failure and redemption, not because you can find it in the box score, except perhaps as WP (wild pitch) followed by HR.

In the book review of The Baseball Encyclopedia that I talked about earlier, Arnold Edelstein mentions Moonlight Graham, a real player whose story became the subject of W.J. Kinsella’s famous novel, Shoeless Joe. Graham’s first appearance in the majors was on June 29, 1905; his last appearance was that same day. Though he played right field in that game, his line score is empty. Kevin Varrone finds another such player, another such box score, in Harry O’Neill who, in 1939, caught in one game for the Philadelphia Athletics. He had no plate appearance. His line is all zeroes. In Varrone’s book, the box score appears under the first line: “the box score an autobiography”[.] That is the title of the book, and the poem he told one of my students once over skype was his favorite poem in the book. If this is autobiography, what does it say, especially considering that Harry O’Neill died in 1945 at Iwo Jima? He was in a major league game once, but he had no effect on the game (except to make the throw from the catcher to the pitcher, without which there would be no game, as Marianne Moore has pointed out). It says that the box score fails.

On the one hand, the box score, like poetry, "makes nothing happen." On the other hand, the box score opens up to autobiography as pure emotional possibility. Zero is to the box score what white is to all colors. Anything or nothing could have happened. A box score can indicate a perfect game, or it can tell us that someone with a name played and otherwise left no trace of himself. Varrone’s notion that a baseball stadium is a church moves us past the pastime of baseball and into eternal time. He is running the bases, yes, but he is also saying goodnight to the moon and sounding out a hush to his sons. The lights have come on; they are electric lights, but they also belong to that larger light that unites us to history and to something beyond it. The imperfect, as Wallace Stevens once wrote about baseball, is our paradise.

No comments: