“Son, I just told you”: On Believing and the Poetry of John Poff

It’s summertime and in the U.S. this still means baseball. It seems fitting, then, to feature some poetry from John Poff who was a major leaguer and is a brilliant poet. As our poetry editor, Paul Worley, points out in his introduction, his work isn’t so much about baseball as it is about belief. And it feels like today, we really need to believe.

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 press, subscribing to a literary journal, or otherwise supporting the arts. I heartily recommend grabbing a copy of the new issue of Hotel Amerika which is celebrating its 20th anniversary by publishing an anthology of some its most creative, provocative, and stimulating work. Grab a copy here.

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“Son, I just told you”: On Believing and the Poetry of John Poff

I am, at root, a believer. A believer in what I cannot always specify, but I believe. In the God I learned about in a Southern Baptist Church as a small child? No, though I’m well versed in the potential consequences of not doing so. In the Rays chances this year? Maybe. In the Virgen de Guadalupe? Definitely. In the right arm of a former English student of mine who was recently demoted to AA? I have to. He has to. Someone has to.

As I headed to campus last August in the middle of our ongoing global plague to teach in-person for the first time in over a year, I went back to listening to Effectively Wild, a baseball podcast, on my hour-plus commute from Asheville to Cullowhee. More than anything, arguments over baseball are not just distracting, they are comforting. For all the statistics we have we almost know what has happened, and can point to what might happen, but we still never know. We believe until shown otherwise.

I was and am nervous about the future, but I remain a believer. The Friday, August 27, 2021, episode of Effectively Wild (officially episode 1739), had an interview with former Major Leaguer John Poff.

I went to UNC, John went to Duke.

I am a specialist in Indigenous Studies, John works with friends on the Standing Rock Reservation on a number of things, including promoting baseball.

I am a literature professor and poetry editor of the North Dakota Quarterly, John is a brilliant poet.

I teach, John teaches.

I like baseball, John played baseball.

It’s unlikely that a former Major Leaguer would respond to an email request from a literature professor at a small school in NC but I am, if nothing else, a believer.

After an email to Ben Lindbergh from the podcast, as well as several emails and a phone call with John, I’m honored to share some of his work with you. And I’d like you to believe that, in many ways and at this moment, this selection of Poff’s poems puts its finger squarely on our collective need to relate, to see our reflection in the world around us, to believe, perhaps even to know. The baseball poems he read on air are reprinted here and are, without exaggeration, some of the most ambitious baseball writing out there. For example, “Baseball Sestina” stands on its own as a fantastic poem, but it is “for Enos Slaughter,” John’s former coach when he played baseball at Duke. The sestina is a twelfth-century Italian poetic form, and in all of US letters there can be no more unlikely person to whom one could dedicate such an aesthetically anachronistic poem than to a man whose nickname was “Country” and whose last name was “Slaughter.” And yet, in an ever widening spiral that encompasses all of US history and ends with the image of “a park where natives and invaders smoke the same tobacco,” Slaughter’s seemingly simplistic, pat advice at the beginning of the poem “When you get to the ballpark/ Check which way the wind is blowing/ And then get yourself a good ball to hit,” drives the satori in the ballpark at the poem’s finale, “Where the sound of one hand clapping is known/ And where the wind blowing and the railroad whistle are the same.” Suspension of disbelief is unnecessary as, if one can use a poem to unify such opposites as a nine-hundred year old Italian poetic form and a ballplayer from Roxboro, NC, we’ve been shown that anything might be possible, even the miracle. Especially the miracle. We’ve gone past belief. Maybe, just maybe, we can know. As in “An Atheist No More,” we are to recognize the presence of the diviI’m ne in freshly split wood, or in the poem “palimpsest: poem for Mohamed Bouazizi” we witness the resonance of words that are actions in the final lines “In the foreground/ there is just the meadow,/ a human being,/ the sound practice.” Bouazizi was the man whose self-immolation in Tunisia in 2010 initiated the movement that came to be known as the Arab Spring. Those final words open up a world of meaning: humans as the practice of sound, or as good practitioners, or as practicing sounds we cannot get right (ie poetry), practice, however (imperfect) as hope, belief. We are left with all the possibilities of the line suspended before us, believing all of them and everything at once.

As we look towards the fall, the Rays are 8 games out of first in the AL East. Roe v. Wade is all but dead. There is war in Ukraine with no end in sight. There are midterm elections upcoming in the US. Nineteen fourth graders and two teachers were recently murdered with an assault weapon in Uvalde, Texas. The COVID-19 pandemic is about to enter its fourth year, with Monkeypox on the horizon. Like the voice in Poff’s work, now more than ever and even as we cannot know, we must look to the world, look to each other, and somehow find a way to believe.

– Paul Worley

~

March 8, 2019

Boy I tell you what
(as Buck, who attended Rocky Mount Phillies games
in ’75 – the old Carolina League – used to say:
“Boy I tell you what.”
“What?”
“Son, I just told you.”
“Oh.”)
I say, Boy I tell you what –
when you haven’t had a cup of coffee
since December and you finished
7 weeks of chemo-radiation
3 weeks ago,
and for whatever it is worth
the prognosis is…hopeful,
like the coming Spring,
and you finally feel like a cup
would once again be a real pleasure,
it is something else to go outside
on a freezy cold but beautiful
March morning – March 8
to be exact – 51 years to the day
after Mary Ellen’s passing –
and get that old cup of coffee pleasure,
remembering the vacation in Canada
in 1960, a rustic cabin on a small lake,
sitting in the lodge after breakfast,
the little child me anxious to get going,
my mother saying, “I like to linger
over my coffee.”
Yes, dear mother, let’s,
on this plane and the next.
You and cancer have taught me two great things:
Death is real and this fine day is enough.
So here’s to you, Mom,
and my old friend Vukovich
who passed 12 years ago today
and my childhood friend Greg Bair,
who died 2 years ago today,
who friended me on facebook
and who I never reached out to
(how I regret that)
and then of course to everyone,
I’m pouring a little coffee on the ground to the West,
as my friend out west taught me,
and sharing this cup

An Atheist No More

When you are 60 years old and
Have been splitting wood for heat
the last 30,
Go outside during a January thaw,
Find an old pine stump
You didn’t split last spring,
Some old pine that lived heroically
And stoically, long ago in the wind,
Now just a last stump long-dead,
Raise your maul up to the sky
And split that stump in a warm January breeze,
Lift an old dead split pine shard
Up to your face and breathe deep

And then tell me there isn’t a god

 

Baseball Enlightenment

When you are 26 years old and have zero hits
in your 5 pinch-hits appearances in the Major Leagues
and you are playing for the Phillies in ’79 when they drew
over 30,000 for every home game despite finishing fourth
in the division
and Dickie Noles has just pitched 9 beautiful shutout innings
and you are sent up to pinch hit for him with 2 outs
in the bottom of the ninth and the score tied 0-0 and
the bases are empty
and Bruce Sutter is pitching for the Cubs and this was one
of those years he was virtually unhittable
and you think there may be something funny about this business
of playing in the Big Leagues but you can’t quite put
your finger on it –
maybe it’s the Astroturf, maybe it’s the ghost of
Josh Gibson, maybe it’s just you, or maybe it’s
something else altogether –
and presumably the one thing you can do now that will make
everything clear is hit a home run but what, really,
are the odds?
And as your name is announced over the loudspeakers, amidst
these 30,000 people, the only sound you hear is the beer vendors
hawking their wares – that old shuffle and cry:
that is the sound of one hand clapping

On an Old Ballplayer Getting Back in Shape

54 years old – two cups of coffee in the big leagues
8 full seasons in the minors –
no regrets about any of it

and a lot has happened since
for 10 years an acupuncturist
a schoolteacher for 12
a family man, a grower of natural food
in one of those minor-league off seasons
I watched the sun set from my back porch in Santa Fe,
transfixed, “sealed in eternity” as I put it once in a poem*

and on one of those nights
I stepped off the deck and walked down
among the pinon trees, and I was surprised,
bowled over, to feel inside myself,
deeply, just how much I loved to play ball –
the whole life – and how much I would miss it
if it ever ended

now on a frozen December morning that selfsame sun
rises over my old, cold northern Michigan farmhouse
where after several years I have begun working out again,
and I sit in the still dark morning with a fresh cup of coffee,
a fire just started in our ancient woodstove
(inefficient like me, but brother it puts out the heat)
my wife asleep upstairs, our kids grown and gone

and the only thing I feel is the resonance of last night’s workout –
deep down the old familiar feeling of a body in shape –
the tightness in the abdomen and the corresponding sense
of fitness in the neck and shoulders

“Bow your neck!” we used to shout out at each other
in the 70’s by way of encouragement
and none of us, I think, knew quite what that meant
but everyone understood the sense of preparedness it conveyed

perhaps now for me, approaching old age and death,
that simple sense of fitness is all there is,
and I just may go gently into that dark night after all,
gently and flexibly, with a core of light and strength,
humble as it may be

and who knows? perhaps from that kernel,
“immortal diamond,” that simple sense of readiness,
stripped of all identity

will spring

a new genesis

*This is the full text of that song for the setting sun:

Santa Fe – 1978

Lonesome Dog’s Barking
All my fantasies are realized:
I have a view of Santa Fe from my back porch
That just won’t quit

               tonight i saw the pinkest thin vein of cloud as the sun set
               whether i was the only one to feel it or not –
               it seals me in eternity

There is only the wind
Whistling through the mountaintops
Of this world

palimpsest
(poem for Mohamed Bouazizi)

There is a meadow
and in the background
are all the books ever written,
all the ancestors,
every moment of beauty and pain
in the history of the universe

In the foreground
there is just the meadow,
a human being,
the sound practice

Baseball Sestina                                                                                                                                   (for (Enos Slaughter)

An old ballplayer broke off a plug of tobacco
And said, “When you get to the ballpark,
Check which way the wind is blowing,
And then get yourself a good ball to hit.” I took that native
Advice to heart, but it was years before I felt it in my hands.
You see, I rode the bus; he took the railroad.
The ocean is a whale-highway, but America is a railroad.

Many times I’ve crossed it, rolling my own tobacco
Into homemade cigarettes, cupping there in my hand
The eternal promise of addiction, a park
That’s beautiful, filled with hope and native
Flowers, but always just around some corner, blowing
Out of reach like this smoke is blowing
Across the continent. At ten I played ball down by the railroad.

The leather and dirt and grass and wood provided a native
Thrill. My dad sat in the stands smoking tobacco.
Did his thoughts ever run out past the parked
Cars, out to a whole world he once hoped to hold in his hand?
Once I hit a home run and the audience gave me a hand.
As I circled the bases, I felt the wind blowing
Across my every molecule. This was a new park.

To be in, fantastic, like a railroad
To the sky. When original Americans smoked tobacco,
America was like this, something tremendous, a native
Splendor. That first home run is with me yet, a nativity
Scene enshrined in memory. If my wrinkled, weathered hands
Now shake, still I remember. Pass the tobacco.

Sometimes I think what was once me is now blowing
Far off, on the other side of the railroad
Where we used to play. A graveyard is also a park.
We drove all night to get to Cleveland and parked
Six blocks from the stadium. The natives
Rushed to sell us junk and we felt railroaded

By the ticket-takers. Still, through the prism of clapping hands,
I see myself there, one moment real, one moment blowing
Into nothingness, like a dream of Indian tobacco.
There is a park where natives and invaders smoke the same tobacco,
Where the sound of one hand clapping is known,
And where the wind blowing and the railroad whistle are the same.

~

John Poff graduated from Duke in 1974. He is a former professional baseball player, licensed acupuncturist, and most recently has taught English at a small K-12 school in northern (lower) Michigan for over 20 years.

Paul Worley is the poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

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