Sunday, May 29, 2011

Yesterday I learned that this blog readership has had its first casuality: earlier this week Dana Brand, an occasional reader and commenter, died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. Dana was a professor of English at Hofstra University, a specialist on writers such as Poe, Whitman, and Hawthorne. But he was best known as a fan of one of baseball's most beleaguered teams: the New York Mets. He wrote two books about the Mets and kept an almost daily blog about them. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Michael Kimmelman called Mr. Brand “the Proust of Mets bloggers," and this, in fact, is how I first learned about Dana. Immediately I read his blog, convinced myself to comment, and bought my father-in-law his book for Christmas. And just as immediately Dana wrote back. We never spoke a word about Poe, Whitman, or Hawthorne. We talked about the task of trying to write about baseball.

During that conversation, Dana asked to read my baseball poem, "Cornville," so I posted it for him here. Today I'll post it again, in his memory. I hope the Mets realize how great a fan they've lost.


Dawn Potter

Let us discuss why poetry has lost the power of making men brave.

--E. M. Forster

In front of every third house is a for-sale lineup

not of corn but of flat-bellied pumpkins and warty

hubbards tinted that improbable robin’s-egg blue,

also butternuts, tediously beige, and turk’s-heads

that look like Turk’s heads, though the sales clincher

among these hopeful come-hithers is surely the “PUM

PKINS” sign, a squat two-line exhortation spray-painted

onto a square board and stabbed into a scruff of weeds.

But Jill’s son won’t let her stop the car, not even for pum

pkins; he claims this cheerful roadside merchandise

“might not be good enough,” though he refuses to elaborate

because he’s concentrating on Joe Castiglione, Voice

of the Boston Red Sox, who’s executing a thrilling on-air

play-by-play fit over the alacritous mouse careening

across his shoes in the Tropicana Field press box;

yet even in mid-fluster the intrepid Voice manages

to recount a few pertinent clubhouse-mouse anecdotes,

for who can forget (intones the Voice) the great Phil Rizzuto,

whose severe mouse hate occasionally tempted a bored

Yankee to park a dead rodent in his fielder’s glove?

Her son, alert and unamazed, sucks up this radio tumult

like oxygen; and if he’s more exercised by Rizzuto’s

shortstop stats than by the image of a long-suffering

Trop Field janitor stowing a poised and baited trap

between the Voice’s jittery feet, it’s merely a symptom

of his ascetic attention, the rich curiosities of discipline

he’s imposed on his brain, where details of mouse fear

are mere decorative flourishes in the noble history

of baseball—this unfurling seasonal pageant of power

and beauty and earnest fidelity among a pack of heroes

who can’t possibly blow their seven-game lead,

can they? Another pumpkin stage-set flashes past Jill

on this Cornville road where, come to think of it,

there was corn once, and not so many days ago either:

acres of it, bobbing green and ostrich-like over these mild foothills,

but now shaved close, row upon row of dun-colored stubble

fading to dirt, the harvest’s backward march to blankness,

an oracular patriarch reverting to beardless boy—

mouse heaven, no doubt, but not a modern paradise

the like of Tropicana Field, vast echoing hall of crumbs,

home of Cracker Jack galore and brisk secret scrambles

among an eternity of folding chairs. That poor radio

adventurer scampering over the Voice’s shiny feet:

he’s a goner, no question about it, bound to be trap-snapped,

maybe this at-bat or the next, for the Voice will not forebear,

no extra innings for rodents, and Jill herself cannot abide mice,

those Sisyphean wretches shoving rocks back and forth, back

and forth, all night above her bedroom ceiling; she lies awake,

rigid and furious, wishing them dead. The roadside unrolls

like a backdrop; Jill’s car swallows tarmac, smoothly, greedily;

yes, Cinderella’s godmother magicked pumpkins into coaches,

mice into footmen; but can a princess trust a mouse-man

not to steal her shiny slippers and stuff them under a garret

floorboard? Or does she lie in bed, night after night,

listening to the Voice chatter and complain on the prince’s

kitchen radio, to the mouse-man scuffle and creak

above her head? Is she wishing him dead?

Jill’s son, like any prince, is indifferent to the mouse,

though also magnanimous, though also ruthless.

The mouse doesn’t gnaw at him. A princess

is different—touchier, guiltier. Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater,

had a wife but couldn’t keep her, and no wonder—

they fret so, these wives and princesses, not like the Voice,

who takes a break from his mouse to sell a few Volvo safety tips

and discuss the fine backyard sheds available for purchase

at Home Depot. In the backseat Jill’s son chortles lustily

alongside a Kubota jingle . . . Put her in a pumpkin shell

and there he kept her very well, and what on earth

is that supposed to mean? These nursery rhymes:

they’re like the Good Book—nothing but hint, trickery, or truth.

Jill glances up at the Harley swelling into rear mirror view

and thinks about ire and anti-Peter feminists and pulpit-pounding

preachers and screaming Big Papi fans, and sighs,

not because she’s necessarily immune to energetic belief, or even

energetic hope: but it’s tiresome, this inability to gracefully

tolerate a riddle. We forget the Sphinx and gape at Oedipus;

nothing consoles our lost honor. If the Red Sox

blow the series, her son will weep noisily into his banner,

betrayed, aghast—not exactly implying that Beowulf

died in battle so why shouldn’t Manny Ramirez

brain himself with a bat instead of shrugging “Better luck

next time,” but really: what does brave require?

Not falling on your sword after losing to the Devil Rays

but maybe not “if a bully bothers you on the playground,

just walk on by,” even if the second version comforts

those son-loving mothers who aren’t Grendel’s:

though it would be easy enough to be Grendel’s mother,

Jill thinks suddenly, grieving and vengeful, loping savagely

from her hole in the fens, wretched, livid, desperately hungry

for Danes; and she’s startled at the vision, for it can be strangely

tonic to picture oneself as a monster, especially at moments

of maternal docility, child strapped safely in the backseat

of a well-airbagged automobile, robust squash glinting in the autumn

sunlight, sky as clean and blue as a morning-glory, a sedate

Harley-with-sidecar tooling up behind her. Properly blinking,

the bike passes her; and as it rumbles by her window,

she catches sight of the oversized Rottweiler

wedged into the sidecar. He looks like Stonehenge

on the run, head thick as a brick, little ears aflutter,

yawp gaping with delight and solidly drooling

into the wind. He looks, come to think of it,

like Big Papi heading home for lobster after a cheerful

ball-chasing afternoon, a man who (according to her son)

named his kid after a sub shop, surely a Rottweiler

token of happiness, for there’s a certain plain bravery in joy;

and imagine those golden-haired Geats, shields glinting,

splashing up the stony beach—late-day sun, a sea of spears

and shadows; even a mouse owns the courage

of his enchantments; and how the Voice loves his voice,

the quick syllables, the straining verbs, the fervor of the tale—

“He crushed that pitch,” exclaims the Voice; and meanwhile,

a mouse considers a peanut-laced trap; meanwhile, Jill’s car

trails a disappearing fat dog down a twisting Cornville avenue;

meanwhile, her son suddenly falls asleep against his window,

his mind blossoming with heroes, except that all of them

are himself, everything, yes, everything, depends on his quick

and powerful blow, and how these bright standards

fly in the wind as the men gather in the broad meadow,

a host of warriors, raising their heavy goblets

to salute the king.

[from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)]


Louise Gallagher said...

A beautiful tribute to your friend.

Dawn Potter said...

"Friend" is an odd term in the Internet world, don't you think? One gets to know people in limited yet particular ways. Dana Brand was not a friend, yet we were friendly. There seems to be no appropriate word for this new sort of relationship.

Ruth said...

A fitting tribute. You are right, friend is not quite right and neither is acquaintance.