12 February 2018

If God Invented Baseball

E. Ethelbert Miller is a name that you have heard of.  You have heard him on the radio, perhaps on television, perhaps at some even here or there.  If you are not of the world of poetry, then perhaps that is a name that whispers to you at such a distance that you can just quite make out what is being said yet still remain unsure.  The world we usually walk in is the baseball world and that world does in fact overlap with Miller's in ways that should be readily known to us as if a part of us has always known, but never quite said.

If God Invented Baseball is a collection of Miller's poetry that utilizes the familiar knowledge we share of baseball as a way to communicate that reaches down into our soul.  Baseball lets your guard down and enables the author to reach in with his message before your natural walls come up or your filters lock into place.  Baseball provides a construct and an even ground to offer up personal truths about life.  And that is what the works in this book is about, I think.  I think it is about life.

The book opens with a poem, Ball Four, about Jim Bouton.  A meeting between the poet in his youth and Bouton as a young hurler with enormous potential.  Miller grew up in New York City and focus on a Yankee team that was not as shiny and clean and damily friendly as today's incarnation was.  However, Bouton was always known as a kind soul.  He was someone who would line children up and spend a moment with each as he signed a few autographs.  As an opening poem, the collection asks us to think back to our childhood; the innocence, the naivete.  The truth about that point in life, the narrator's and perhaps your own.

As the collection progresses, we find that not only is this a work that speaks of the author's own experiences, it is a work that tries to expand that message and broaden it.  Later in the book, Miller pens The Trade.  The Trade tries to communicate an incident where part of childhood dies when the greater world opens up.  The narrator speaks of when his parents come to tell him he is being bused across the city to a predominantly white school.  How it was the first time he realized there was a discerning aspect to himself that he did not fully comprehend before: his blackness.  The narrator summons Curt Flood, the baseball player who sacrificed himself to bring about free agency.  With that inclusion, the narrator communicates that there can be loss when forging something new, something that attempts to be better.

The collection continues to wind through ruminations about life as one would progress through it in time.  It ends with two poems.  One about the changing of the guard.  It is about the passing of the elders.  The other is maybe a rebuke to the preceding poem in that life should be lived in the moment as opposed to calculating what has been lost or gained.  The one should give themselves to the moment and fully embrace it with your senses.

The collection was eye opening to me.  I come from a liberal arts education, but veered right into the sciences.  In the sciences, I have been for 17 years.  Poetry is not my normal feed.  I devour biographies, technical writing, and what not.  And perhaps that is where these poems touched me in that it effectively is a biography.  A biography that is stripped, reduced to a familiar syrup at least until about halfway through when the poems began taking me into my future.

Beyond me, the works charge into a political arena as well as into how race connects to many issues.  I found the use of baseball as a metaphor, a construct for these issues to be rather effective.  With that in mind, I would like to leave you one poem to consider.  One aspect you might find interesting is the impression former Oriole Hoyt Wilhem had on the author and how it was a defining moment in his youth that he uses to relate to you something else.

The Knuckleball  
Every black man should be born
with a big mitt.
How else can one catch the world
that flutters in unpredictable ways.  
The sound of a knuckleball
is Parker on his horn.
When Ella scats don’t try
to copy her.  
Oriole Hoyt Wilhelm in 1958 threw
a no-hitter against the Yankees.
It was like Douglass being Lincoln
for a day. It’s impossible to dance
to slavery anymore. It ended with
the hangman’s swing.  
The knuckleball is Bebop.
Don’t be baffled by its strange beauty.
Just keep hitting it with your ears.


If God Invented Baseball
E. Ethelbert Miller
72 pages
City Point Press


Pip said...

Thank you for sharing. What kind of music do you listen to?

Jon Shepherd said...

Most things, but I tend to hone in on alternative country. It runs the gamut though. I like deep dives.

Unknown said...

Great poem. I had to look up Hoyt Wilhelm. Did you know he played until he was 49?


Jon Shepherd said...

The last player to play when he was 49 was Jamie Moyer.