Saturday, June 01, 2024

Red Letter Poem #209

 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.










Red Letter Poem #209









Ralph Branca was the fifteenth of seventeen children.

This poem is not the poem of “the speaker.”


His father was an immigrant from Calabria.

These words are those of Robert Pinsky. Speaking.


Branca wore Dodger uniform number 13.

“Speaking” is the punch line of a Jewish joke.


Some Romans call Calabrians “Africani.”

Brooklyn had its own daily, the Brooklyn Eagle.


At eighty-five Branca learned about his mother.

He was twenty-one when Robinson joined the Dodgers.


At eleven I loved Robinson for his daring

Running the bases. Stealing home. His fire.


Branca was one of the few who befriended him.

I was too young to understand his mission


The fuel of that dancing to taunt the pitcher.

Robinson never forgot Branca’s kindness.


What the old man found out about his mother

Is she was born a Jew in Hungary. Kati.


After he gave up the most famous home run ever,

Back in the clubhouse Branca lay weeping face down.


Kati gave birth to seventeen Catholic children.

The Giants won the pennant. 1951.


Branca means “claw,” a fit name for a pitcher.

His teammates thought it best that he cry alone,


But “Only my dear friend Jackie, who knew me so well,

Came over and put his arm around my shoulder.”


The Nazis killed the aunts and uncles Branca

Didn’t know existed until he was old.


42 in itself a nothing of a number.

The Dodgers traded Branca to the Tigers.


Grief: with its countless different ways and strains.

Glory: a greater thing than success, but slower.


Some of the Tigers who had been Giants explained

To Branca how the Giants had stolen the signs


From opposition catchers.  The telescope

In center field. Wires, buzzers. Branca chose not


To talk about it.  It’s all in Prager’s book.

His research unearthed Kati, those aunts and uncles.


The Dodgers were taken from Brooklyn by their owner:

I, Robert Pinsky, choose not to say his name.


I didn’t live in Brooklyn but I knew the score.

I knew it was a kind of underdog place.


Nowadays once a year all Major Leaguers

Wear Jackie Robinson’s number 42.


In the joke, the person who answers the telephone

At Goldberg, Goldberg and Goldberg keeps replying


That Goldberg is out of the office. And so is Goldberg.

“Alright, then let me talk to Goldberg.” “Speaking.”


Robinson spoke to Branca: “Without you”

He said, “We never could have made it this far.”



                                  ––Robert Pinsky




“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.”  With this intriguing line, Homer introduces his famed protagonist, Odysseus; but, had the bard been born in a later time, he might have said much the same invoking Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher, Ralph Branca (especially if he’d ever attempted to hit his curve ball.)  Branca was a three-time All-Star whose dozen years in the Majors were completely overshadowed when he gave up a single fateful hit––baseball’s famous “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.”  Coming into the decisive game of the National League Pennant race––October 3rd, 1951 at the New York Giant’s old Polo Grounds, ninth inning, with his team nursing a 4-2 lead––Branca gave up a three-run walk-off homer to Bobby Thomson, bringing his team’s glorious season to ruin and breaking hearts from Greenpoint to Sheepshead Bay. 


Aristocratic men in ancient Greece lived by the code of kleos, or “fame”, aiming to crown their names with the renown of a great warrior, while bringing honor to the tribe.  Again, not so very different from the situation of those baseball players back in the Forties and Fifties––way before today’s age of massive contracts for even mediocre talents.  To other New Yorkers, Brooklyn was seen as something of a tribal enclave who heartily embraced their ‘neighborhood team’––as I often heard from my father when I was small.  He’d tell me how he remembered sitting on his front stoop in Flatbush and seeing the owner of the Dodgers (I’ll respect the poet’s wishes and leave him nameless), strolling along giving out bleacher tickets to the local kids.  Life can often be unfair, and Branca’s name, if it’s remembered at all, is forever associated with defeat because of a single fastball.  Yet America’s bard, Robert Pinsky sings the praises of this good man whose faith and moral character were their own form of triumph.  One example: on opening day in 1947—which marked the major league debut of Jackie Robinson, baseball’s first player of Color—Branca lined up on the field beside Robinson, when all other players refused.  It took some courage to stand up for what was simply right, and a friendship quickly grew from it.  And so, in this poem from Robert’s about-to-be published eleventh collection, Proverbs of Limbo, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), his couplets unscroll deliberately slow, offering us their refracted meditation on honor, identity, and the private and civic experiences to which poetry remains an essential response.  The piece is a sly intermixing of remembered events, curious bits of biography, and even a corny joke; and only as we readers immerse ourselves in the poem, do the elements coalesce into a more unified vision, mirroring perhaps how the multi-faceted mind pieces together its reality.  The poem provides us with some insight into where we are today in our American journey, and what’s enabled us (as the poet phrased it in that concluding line) to make it this far. 


Robert has earned his own version of kleos, working as a poet, essayist, educator, and three-term United States Poet Laureate.  And, for goodness sakes, how many poets have on their resumé an appearance in an episode of The Simpsons?!  Fame indeed!  That attests to his public profile which he’s used again and again to herald poetry’s essential role in our cultural wellbeing.  Forty-five years ago, Robert published his book-length poem An Explanation of America, crafted as an elaborate letter to his daughter concerning the world she was entering.  Near the conclusion he writes: “If I could sail forward to see the streets/ Of that strange country where you will live past me,/ Or further even by a hundred years;/ And walk those pavements with my phantom steps. . .my courage/ Would fail, I think: best not to mount the steps/ Where I could leave no footprint in the snow…”.  It is fortifying to both poet and reader that such imaginative courage carries him onward, and his explanations of the tortuous American mythology continue––speech directed toward that unimaginable future.  And those footprints in the snow––they’ll belong to newcomers who are still carrying poems like this one.





Red Letters 3.0


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