Saturday, November 19, 2022

Red Letter Poem #136

 The Red Letters



In ancient Rome, feast days were indicated on the calendar by red letters.  To my mind, all poetry and art serves as a reminder that every day we wake together beneath the sun is a red-letter day.


                                                                                                          – SteveRatiner





Red Letter Poem #136





"It's a beautiful day for a ballgame.  Let's play two!"


      Ernie Banks,

Hall of Fame shortstop, the Chicago Cubs



Now that we’ve just emerged from two of America’s tumultuous cultural rituals – baseball’s World Series, and our electoral trial by fire – I thought it a perfect time to invite poet E. Ethelbert Miller to reframe the conversation with work from his new collection How I Found Love Behind the Catcher’s Mask (City Point Press).  It’s the third volume in a trilogy that uses baseball as a window into the American landscape of the 20th century and our nascent 21st.  But this is no simple homage to the sport he loves and its famed practitioners; it’s a deep examination of the psychic forces that help make us American or, in other cases, attempt to unmake us.  And, in Ethelbert’s mind, baseball is inextricably braided with jazz, poetry, race relations, and our often-thwarted hunger for love, for a sense of belonging.  Taken all together, he’s now created a magnificent sequence of over 150 poems where the language of baseball – it’s diction, mindset, rich history – become a springboard for the poet to examine the odyssey of his own life and that of his contemporaries (though Odysseus, now that I think of it, would have a hell of a time fielding pop flies while tied to his ship’s mast.)  The poems are rich in metaphor, redolent with baseball slang and lore; they offer us the long arc of memory, as thrilling as any homerun swing. 


Following Ernie’s dictum, here’s a doubleheader of short poems from Ethelbert’s collection.  I love the way disparate trains of thought interweave in his work, one context throwing light upon the other.  But listen, as well, to the rhythmic invention running through his poems – the litany of we’s in the first piece, standing perhaps against the wave of divisiveness we’ve been suffering in recent times.  And my heart fluttered just a bit (like trumpet keys? like a knuckleball?) with that closing cascade of d’s in the Ellington piece, eye and ear equally engaged.


It would be impossible to fit all of Ethelbert’s stats and honors within this baseball card-sized introduction.  So let me simply say he’s a poet, teacher, and self-appointed ‘literary activist’ based in Washington D.C. (though the mayor of Baltimore made him an honorary citizen – hoping, perhaps, he might wear two insignias on his cap when he’s finally inducted into the poet’s Hall of Fame.)  He’s the author of numerous poetry collections, a pair of stirring memoirs, and is the editor of two anthologies including the seminal In Search of Color Everywhere – “a chronicle of the African-American experience and the making of America.”  Since 1974, he’s served as director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University; he’s also the editor of Poet Lore, the oldest continuously-published literary journal in America that once featured the likes of Rilke, Verlaine, and Emma Lazarus in its pages.  And if you’ll permit me to go into extra innings, I found out just now that Ethelbert was nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album – and if that doesn’t deserve an exclamation point (that little baseball bat balanced atop a ball), I don’t know what does!  Now, if the poet can only handle the curve. . .



Trapped Inside the Glove:

The American Pitch


We almost took a hard fast one to the head.

We stumbled out of voting booths as if we had seen a curve.

We avoided the sliders as if they were lies.

We knew what cutters did to our rights.

We lived with the crazy knuckleballs of history.

We kept swinging at the flutter, the rotation of freedom.




Sophisticated Lady


Why did Ellington say music was his mistress

and not baseball?


Somewhere between swing and bebop

Satchel Paige took the mound.


Fingering the keys is as beautiful

as fingering the ball.


Cool Papa Bell believed he was cooler than jazz.

Turn out the lights and grab the bass by the bed.


Did Dizzy Dean ever wear a beret?

Dizzy did.



                                    ––E. Ethelbert Miller




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