Friday, September 19, 2008

Reader's Diary #397- Randall Maggs: Night Work The Sawchuk Poems

I received Randall Maggs' Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems from the Mini Book Expo for Bloggers site, one of my new favourite websites. It helps that the first book they sent was this one. I loved it.

Published by Brick Books, their enthusiasm in this project shines through. With my copy they'd included a faux-hockey card with Sawchuk on the front and lines from one of Maggs' poems on the back in lieu of the typical career highlights or biography. And, in a stroke of genius, the book was launched where else, but the Hockey Hall of Fame, complete with a promotional video from BookShort film. It would be easy to suggest that those of us heaping praise upon the book have been bought off with hockey cards and hype. But I think the people at Brick Books merely recognized what a brilliant book they were sitting on.

Told in a series of mostly narrative poems, this is the biography of Terry Sawchuk, one of the NHL's greatest goalies of all time. I'm sure followers of hockey, especially in its "good ol' days," would recognize more of the players, nicknames, and actual games and most likely enjoy this book. But I'm proof that being a hockey fanatic is not a prerequisite. Had Sawchuk been an entirely fictional character, Maggs' poetry would stand on its own. That Sawchuk actually existed simply adds to the mystique.

It's a mystique that Maggs' somehow manages to salvage, while paradoxically making Sawchuk more human. How can you relate to a man that spits out bits of his teeth and continues to play a game? Because he feels the rejection of fickle fans. Because he doesn't always behave responsibly. Because he knows the pressure of expectation. Maggs presents a quintessential hero with humanity.

The strengths of Maggs' poetry are many. Often told from varying points of view (Terry, other players, Maggs himself) I was initially confused by the changing perspectives. Though, when it comes to hockey, it is nothing new to me to lose sight of who has the puck. I eventually got used to the style.

I also came to appreciate the way Maggs captured the language and feel of the game without patronizing it or dumbing it down. "Arse" has never sounded so poetic.

In "Our Trio" Maggs captures the sometimes awkward moments between journalists and athletes:

"'So what's the game plan boys?' the interviewer asks
to get things rolling. 'What were those golden thoughts when
you woke this morning?' The boys do all they can. 'We win each battle
on the boards, we'll be okay.' 'Howie, this team does its talking
on the ice.' While not a week before in a different city,
our three concoct a brilliant goal in overtime,
a coughed-up puck, two letter-perfect
passes and a tip-in off the post."

If Maggs' point was to show the futility of asking these hockey players to summarize a brilliant play in words, maybe there's a contradiction in Maggs' ability to use words to put it all in perspective.

Another strength was the pacing. In off-ice times, he pulls it back creating a more reflective, often depressing atmosphere (many are synopses of photographs), but speeds it up in the frenetic atmosphere of a game (see the way one stanza jumps to the next in "Something Burning in Chicago"). There's also the clever way he uses varying ice conditions as mood-altering imagery. The list of virtues is as long as Sawchuk's career.

Quite frankly, this is the best biography I've ever read. Capturing most of the finer points of the book, is "Tidal Fears."

Tidal Fears
the mind clings to the road it knows
-Mary Oliver, "Robert Schumann"

"I'm through. This is it.
You saw me out there and I was shit."

Terry, talking to some friends outside the Stadium
players' gate. A little accidental poem of embarrassment
after the opening game in Chicago.
The noisy crowd had loved it when he seemed
a moody beat-up goalie winding down.
Cheerfully they sang him off the ice.
Good bye Terry good bye,
Good bye Terry good bye,
We'll see you again but we don't know when,
Good bye Terry good bye.
How many times that season he had tried to call it
quits. His back was bad, the famous crouch had left its mark,
two ruptured vertebrae, he couldn't straighten up. He couldn't sleep
two hours at a time. You'd hardly think of it as fun, the years
of nerves before a game, the lashing out, the guilt,
the dreaded waking up and being wide awake at 3 a.m.,
of getting drilled by pucks, his nose half ripped away,
his eyeball sliced, the backs of both hands
opened up by skates.

What was it kept him going?
You'd think you'd want October with your family
in the woods, making up for awful times, or jumping on the course
behind the house, the rustle of leaves beneath your feet,
one last round before a killing frost,
or stretching out and reading by the stove.

You'd think at forty you'd feel silly
getting dressed with thirty other guys, buckling on
a flaccid garter belt and wearing regulation ties and making
wisecracks on the bus. What always brought him back
for one more year? Seven kids who needed shoes?
The skim of ice on puddles in the fall?
A tidal fear of being swept to sea?

"Hell, you saw me out there"--same guy,
ten days later, same place, after shutting down the Hawks.

("I got no squawks," said Billy Reay, a man
who saw the game in its entirety, "the guy they had
in goal was just too good.")

"Hell, you saw me out there--I can play this game forever."

--Randall Maggs, 2008
(Used with permission)


Unknown said...

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i liked your blog
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take care
see you

Melwyk said...

I'm so glad you liked this one. I have no feeling for hockey at all, but I thought this was a wonderful book.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm no hockey fan, but this sounds good. I'm off to try to put it on reserve.

Anonymous said...

I'm no sports fan either but wow, talk about capturing the essence of a man and a sport.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great review, John. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.

Kitty Lewis, General Manager, Brick Books - publisher of this book

John Mutford said...

Rohit: Thanks.

Melanie: Glad to hear others have read it.

Laura: I really want to hear your thoughts when you do.

Carrie: He does a marvelous job.

Kitty: Thanks for publishing it.