Thru the Smoky End Boards, Canadian Poetry about Sports
Edited by Kevin Brooks and Sean Brooks.
Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.
Thru the Smoky End Boards, Canadian Poetry About Sports and Games, is a wide-ranging, invigorating, deep, if sometimes discursive, collection of poems about (mainly) hockey and baseball, but other games as well, both team and individual. Edited by the brothers Brooks, Kevin and Sean, with care and insight into their subject, the book offers poems from the late Victorian John Frederic Herbin's 'The Diver" to the Tragically Hip's lyric "Fifty Mission Cap", and (much better) material in between.
The subject is sport as metaphor for how and why we live, though, of course, this is sometimes hard to define. Perhaps this is best seen in George Bowering's "Baseball, a poem in the magic number 9' when he writes of the great Boston Red Sox player, Ted Williams.
I was in love with Ted Williams.
His long legs, that grace,
his narrow baseball bat
level-swung, his knowledge of art,
it has to be perfect, as near
as possible, dont swing
at a pitch seven centimeters
wide of the plate.
I root for the Boston Red Sox
Who are in ninth place
Who haven't won since 1946
It has to be perfect.
We wish we lived our lives--grace, level-swung, every day a seeking for perfection--as Williams lived his game; if only our lives could be the knowledge of the art of that game. That is worth rooting for, even if we remain in ninth place.
The book's subject is also the metaphysic of sport, as in Lionel Kearns, 'Hockey is Zen"
Frank handles his hockey stick
like a delicate instrument, a perfect
extension of physical self
and I, sitting high above the ice
think of a Samurai swordsman:
elegance and exact precision
the gestures executed
in a flash of instant decision.
Sport is about the lone figure, as the Brooks' explain in their generally fine introduction, which "expresses a strong element of the Canadian psyche". Many of the poems centre on the great sport figures as these lone players, usually hockey, carry the unresolved tensions and dreams of a community. Al Purdy's 'Homage to Ree-shard' encapsulates this brilliantly. The Brooks' are right when they state in the introduction that the "strong sense of being first and foremost an individual, yet always a part of a community, may be the uniquely Canadian theme of Thru the Smoky End Boards." Other themes are dealt with in this collection, for example, our sense of being 'not Americans', as particularly noted in the hockey poems, but also in Raymond Souster's edgy, funny baseball poem "Jays Win American League East, 1985" in which he equates that victory as symbolic revenge for the American invasion of Toronto in 1813.
This time, after nine explosive innings,
the damn Yankees are beaten at last
by the pitcher's arm, the bat,
not by any force of arms,
bloody loss of dead and dying.
Another theme is the passing of time, the short career and sometimes tragic end of sports figures makes all of us reflect on our mortality. If we see the best of what we would be in the one great sport figure, we see our end as well in his end. Speaking of 'his', many of the best poems in the collection deal with men and women if not at odds about sports, then at least always in a perplexing discussion. The Brooks' put it this way (though the poems are more complex than what their explanation implies) "The issue is not simply that men inexplicably like sports and women do not, but that sports are so thoroughly gendered as masculine that some atheletes and fans are uncomfortable with the roles they assume when they take up sports and games." These poems will provide fodder for lively debate, especially, I think, "Sport" by Leona Gom.
My one major criticism is that the collection becomes discursive, and near the end, unfocussed. The poems on individual athletes are mainly dull; some of the poems have little to do with the themes incorporated in the rest of the book, their link to sport tentative. Ambition may be the problem for the editors. Trying to include everything is often a problem of including too much for what is truly interesting in the original idea. However, the problem is a small one compared to the rest of the book.
The arrangements of the poems is excellent, easy to find by subject. The index is good as are the acknowledgements. The book is clearly a collection important to its editors, and their genuine concern in how this material, which they obviously love, is presented deserves special mention.
For student, sports fan, casual reader, and those who seek out Canadian poetry, Thru the Smoky End Boards is necessary reading. It is a collection to browse through, argue over, and mainly, admire.
Rory Runnells is coordinator of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights who watches sports.
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Copyright © 1996 the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
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