The Poetry of Dan Quisenberry

As of this morning, the baseball World Series is tied 1-1 between the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros and there’s already been a share of drama with Braves’ pitcher Charlie Morton pitching part of game one with a broken leg.

With the “Fall Classic” as a backdrop, we thought that it was the perfect time to offer a little preview of some content in issue 88.3/4 (which is at the publisher!). We have the incredible good fortune of receiving permission to publish a collection of the late Dan Quisenberry’s poems. Quisenberry was a former major league pitcher who after his retirement turned his hand to poetry and produced a small corpus of touching and, at times, eloquent verses on baseball, family, and life. 

Below the fold, are two of the six poems that will appear in NDQ 88.3/4 and the personal reflection and introduction written by our poetry editor (and resident expert on all things baseball) Paul Worley.

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts. 

Poetry in Context: The Work of Dan Quisenberry

From 1980 to 1984, the Minor League team in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, was known as the Charleston Royals. Having a vivid imagination, no knowledge of geography, and even less knowledge regarding affiliation agreements between Major League teams and their Minor League counterparts, I had no trouble believing that the games I saw on television were played by the same players I saw come through College Park. For all I knew, the Charleston Royals were the Royals, and I vaguely recall thinking that the events surrounding George Brett and the infamous 1983 Pine Tar Incident only took place because the Royals, my Royals, were playing an away game at Yankee Stadium and not in the heat and humidity of a South Carolina July. By the time 1985 and the Royals’ World Series win rolled around, I’d somehow come to the realization that those Royals were not the same as my Royals, but that they were nonetheless connected. I celebrated their win all the same, and guys like Brett Saberhagen, Willie Wilson, and Hal McRae have always held a special place in my baseball fandom for that reason. And of course, like a million other kids in the US in the mid-80s, I spent a good deal of time practicing the low angle, impossibly underhand pitching motion of their closer and original fireman, Dan Quisenberry.

I don’t know nearly as much about baseball as people think I do, but it is true that, at a Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks game, the late Joel Jonietz introduced me to someone by saying, “Paul knows who the shortstop for your team was in the 1930s. Paul could probably also tell you who that guy dated in high school and produce a handwritten letter from him explaining why it was tough to hit in Pulaski.” All of this is to say that I was surprised to find out that Dan Quisenberry, the closer for my (not quite Charleston) Royals, published two volumes of poetry before his untimely passing in 1998. For old time’s sake, I immediately purchased both and spent several anxious days waiting for them to arrive during a global pandemic in which, to be honest, waiting for books of poetry by a Major League closer in the mail is a welcome distraction from most other things.

After opening them up, I immediately knew that I wanted to reintroduce them to the world as best I could, and thanks to the generosity of Janie Quisenberry Stone, Dan Quisenberry’s widow, NDQ is able to reprint the poems you find included here. The first time I read these I felt like I was sitting down with an old friend I admittedly only knew via the medium of baseball cards, televised games, and my own dollar store imitations of his delivery. And make no doubt, the three poems here that deal with baseball and being a player—“Time to Quit,” “Baseball Cards,” and “Vocations”—are deep, moving, complicated poems that engage the reader with the humanity of the player as poet or the poet as player. “Baseball Cards” in particular invites the reader to see those little pieces of cardboard as portraits that tell a story beyond the obscure numbers on the back, one etched in the pictorial evolution of the ballplayer from uncertain youngster to world champion to veteran struggling to hang on. “Vocations” describes the poet’s attorney telling him that he needs a “real job” now that he’s retired, with the poet responding, “but poetry doesn’t grow/ in concrete/ or in straight black and white lines/ and besides that/ I don’t think well with a suit on.” To be honest, “not thinking well with a suit on” describes most everyone I love in this world.

The other three poems included here—“Words,” “Grasping at the Poet Rumi,” and “What If”—are poems on universal themes that simply happen to have been written by a former baseball player. “Words” reminds us that words themselves act and do, while “Grasping at the Poet Rumi” situates Quisenberry as reading within a poetic genealogy that many of us who read and write poetry share. “What If” is a difficult poem about imperfect faith and letting go that asks us to ponder what might happen if we “could trust/ God for this one day?” I’ve returned to that line many times over the past few months as the world has moved from the hope of a vaccine to the dread of the Delta variant, and again now as my wife and I face sending our daughter to school this fall. Right now, the lives of every person on the planet are acutely full of worry, doubt, impatience, and imperfect faith. Quisenberry, one of my Royals, a father, a son, a husband, and a poet, passed away from brain cancer when he was forty-five years old. In this poem published the year of his passing, the poet reaches out to all of us, telling us to have faith and to “try this/ one time/ and see what happens.”

I turn forty-five in less than a month, but my vivid imagination still gets a hold of me when looking at the 1985 Topps card of Quisenberry sitting on my desk. In it, a smiling Quisenberry looks off to the left toward something we can’t see. Maybe he knows the World Series is around the corner. Maybe he’s just watching Florida palm trees in spring training. Maybe he’s in the moment, ready to “see what happens.” Or maybe he’s thinking about the possibility of someone like me writing this, or someone like you reading it, or all of us in a distant future full of what ifs feeling our ways toward whatever is next. As the World Series closes this fall, let’s look to spring. Have faith. There are better days ahead. There must be. In Quisenberry’s words, let’s all “try this/ one time/ and see what happens.”

Paul Worley
Poetry Editor, North Dakota Quarterly

~

Vocations

my attorney said
“we’ve gotta get you a job”
“get some structure into your life”
oh, I see
but poetry doesn’t grow
in concrete
or in straight black and white lines
and besides that
I don’t think well with a suit on

originally appeared in On Days Like This (Helicon Nine Editions) 

Time to Quit

i’m warming up in san francisco
you see
it’s a damp wind-off-the-water cold
and i’m tryin to throw sinkers
into this gale force
the ball
a sparrow in a hurricane
barely makes it
i reach back and grunt
whip it in there like the old days
but i’m a salmon swimming up river
a doberman gnaws on my shoulder
with each toss
and i keep seeing the letter my daughter
wrote inside a crayon tear drop
saying “come home”

skip’s out there on the mound
looks back at me
i want to be invisible
don’t want to play anymore
just an advil
a shower
and a quick flight home

originally appeared in New Letters: A Magazine of Writing & Art and On Days Like This (Helicon Nine Editions)

~

Dan Quisenberry (1953-1998) was a baseball pitcher for the Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals, and San Francisco Giants. He was a husband, father of two children, and feeder of two Labradors. Once baseball ended, he began taking writing and poetry workshops. In the back of his full-length collection On Days Like This he thanks his readers for reading, and says he hopes they are “sitting in a nice warm place.”

Paul M. Worley is Associate Professor of Global Literature at Western Carolina University. Co-written with Rita M. Palacios, his most recent book, Unwriting Maya Literature: Ts’íib as Recorded Knowledge (2019), was given an honorable mention for Best Book in the Humanities by LASA’s Mexico Section.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.
%d bloggers like this: