Poetry

Poetry Sunday: ‘Seventh-Inning Sermon,’ by Chiyuma Elliot

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

As we go into the MLB playoff season with the San Francisco Giants jockeying for a top position, I could not resist featuring a poem about baseball. I first heard this author’s poems when she read them during the semester we both graduated from Warren Wilson’s MFA program in 2010. I’d been in at least one workshop with Chi and was already impressed by her talent, work ethic, and luminous kindness and generosity. But I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a kid in western Pennsylvania cheering on the Pirates and it was the sheer heart in those poems about Satchel Paige that I remember best.

Baseball and poetry have always been linked in my playbook and some very substantial poets agree. Contemporary poet Gail Mazur’s wonderful baseball poem uses a negation technique to draw out the relationships between baseball, life, and art. Marianne Moore (1887-1972) wrote a poem called “Baseball and Writing” that ends: “the Stadium is an adastrium. / O flashing Orion, / your stars are muscled like the lion.”  Moore threw the opening pitch for at least one Yankees game and you can see the ball in the amazing exhibit that recreates her entire living room in the Rosenthal Museum in Philadelphia.

The intricacy of baseball’s rules and the skill required to navigate them with grace and panache reminds me of how the best formalist poets work. And for me, watching a perfectly executed fastball burning into home plate or a home run arcing out of the park fires the same neuron receptors as reading a great poem. This may be what gave me the idea for the Poetry World Series, a reading series I’ve been curating with Bay Area poet Melissa Stein since 2009. The format is simple: nine innings in which players from two teams “bat” (read one of their own previously-written poems) to a “pitch” consisting of a topic chosen by the audience, and a panel of judges who decide the winner of each inning. Okay, maybe it’s not that simple, but these high-energy events are great fun and always well attended. The next one, part of San Francisco’s Litquake, is at the Make Out Room on October 12 and features emcee John Roderick, judges Katie Peterson and D.A. Powell, and “players” Kim Addonizio, Malachi Black, Douglas Kearney, Raina J. León, Julia Levine, and Javier Zamora.

“Seventh Inning Stretch” knocks it out of the park with six tercets of incantatory, biblical-sounding long lines that inspire the awe we feel towards any art (including, I’d maintain, baseball) at its apex. Elliot uses simple, mostly monosyllabic diction and strong nouns to build remarkable images in metaphors and similes that create energy and sustain tension. “His teeth will be a gate, his eye an arrow” sets the tone, generating a buzz and creating in Satchel Paige a character of near-mythic proportions. The excitement starts high and builds from there, abetted by the first-person speaker performing the tasks of an acolyte: “be not afraid—I’ll make you the fire, I’ll make you / the hole, home plate will be big as a table.” Even the plate and mound sing their praise of Paige’s prowess: “The mound will say, There’s nothing for you here, the plate will say, / Go back where you came from.” The use of so many different voices in addition to the omniscient third—those briefly-animated parts of the field, first-person of the poem’s speaker, and the “preacher” brought in to pinch-hit near the end—is one strategy that accounts for the force, passion, and tumult in this poem; it’s if we are at a game, seated in a crowd of voices all tuned to the same frequency and accumulating in the direction of this remarkable pitcher doing what he does best.

Even if I don’t know exactly what they are, I love the enumeration of specialty pitches with their highly descriptive names— “the Bee Ball, the Jump Ball, the Bat Dodger”—and their implicit identity with the act of Creation: “how God held this round world in his hand, and made the oceans / and the beasts and fish, and man.” Who couldn’t love a line that compares a pitchers arm to “a branch, wrist a rubber band, hand an anvil”?  Or the lines that end the poem, making baseball large by shrinking everything else in the universe:

and the world will get small as a peach, the park small as a feather.
And you’ll be small as an atom, small as a speck, small as
the smallest hole in your leather, and no-one will hit you.

That’s as good as anything I’ve read anywhere, and nearly as good as Bobby Thomson’s pennant-clinching home run when the New York Giants beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1951:

Watch that video clip to see how baseball announcers make poetry of clichés like “against history, against the odds, against all reason” and “baseball is about heartbreak and about miracles.” It’s all that and more, and I find it inspiring that the experience can be distilled so effectively into an 18-line poem that recharges my love of baseball—and poetry—each time I read it. Thank you, Chi Elliot, for writing it, and oh, by the way: GO GIANTS!

 

Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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  • Mary F September 25, 2016 at 7:52 am

    In 1951 the New York Giants defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers did not move to Los Angeles until the 1958 season.

    Reply