This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman. Photo credit: Harlem Globetrotters, San Diego, CA. Feb. 20, 2004, Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Daniel A. Jones
Picking up any book on sports, I already feel like an outsider. Despite the fact that I’ve endured many of the typical embarrassments of a short-lived career in park district soccer and a few attempts to convince myself (and everyone else) that I was good at fantasy football, I can’t say that athletic pursuits have ever been a particular forte. Beyond the typical exposure to those moments which crossover from the press conference to a Facebook or Twitter feed, I have to admit that my awareness of the figures in Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion is, for the most part, rooted in history or hearsay. I either know what is said about them, or how (to varying degrees) the players construct their personas.
That written, it feels strange to be thinking and writing about apparently benign sports talk, but what’s captivating (and much of the writing about the book has reiterated this) is that, somehow, Malla and Parker stumble upon and expose secrets, even if the impression that the reader gets isn’t strictly “true.” Taken out of their given original contexts, the figures included in Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion acquire new subtexts which rely less on our knowledge of stats and more on our interest in what it is to be cornered.
Malla and Parker ask us to consider the ways in which persona constructs itself from the simultaneously strongest and flimsiest of media: language.
These athletes, some of whom are cornered in press conferences or interviews on the sidelines, are experimenting with the unstable word and, from time-to-time, have piercing or extremely humorous insights which, in the confusion and rapidity of the moment, may otherwise get lost in the 24 x 7 sports media machine.
The collection is full of voices—78 by my count, as some poems collage multiple speakers—and it is key that the work which Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion is not merely a transcription. By the time that Malla and Parker are through with them, the act of reproducing ways of speaking, and a speaker’s accompanying verbal habits, creates mechanics of the poetic utterance – rather than mimicking them. In several of the pieces, the anaphoric quality of a speaker’s language transfers extremely well to the structure of the piece, such as the wonder and awe of “High School Blitz” in which the persona underpinning the poem, Apollos Hester, is only able to tell us that what happened “was awesome./Awesome./Awesome.”
The typical inclination toward “show, don’t tell” may normally work to render the speaker’s force of voice inert. But by never really describing the source event that the speaker tells us can create “an awesome feeling/It’s an awesome feeling,” Malla and Parker transform the original text from a post-game interview into a self-reflexive artifact that distills a 9-stanza poem to its truest essence, a kind of sublime “awesome” which no other word or amount of description can accomplish.
And manipulation and formal concerns play a large part in transforming the sampled language of Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion. Nearly all of the poems leave some language on the cutting room floor, but a large portion of the collection engages in using form to create the same sense of fire, passion, and obsession that the title is after. While there is more than one way by which the authors gesture toward the kinds of poetic tradition that one might expect of a poetry collection, Malla and Parker leverage the pantoum (“Cement Doesn’t Give as much as Snow”), haiku, dialogic forms, rhyming quatrains (“Ford Tough”), and others. The prose treatments in the book (particularly “Practice” and “Slaughterhouse in a Blouse”—Allen Iverson and Rhonda Rousey, respectively) do much the same work, creating fields of text which are either glorious in their circularity or entropy. In “Slaughterhouse in a Blouse,” Rousey-as-speaker dispenses philosophical aphorism, affirming for the reader that “[h]appiness is the absence of want,” alongside what one might view as less traditional wisdom to
[n]ever sneeze in front of a falcon.
No less important than any other element, the collection is simply funny. Though poetry has always been a serious business, the tradition of the form is no less humorous, a fact not lost on the work in Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion. Its slant on humor shares something with Robert Fitterman’s No. Wait. Yep. Definitely Still Hate Myself. in how it engages in different registers of humor that are more or less apparent. In some cases, the humor in a poem is direct, such as that of “If You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It,” a two-line poem in the voice of Yogi Berra which simply reads “If you don’t know where you’re going/you’ll end up somewhere else”—another aphorism gaining a humorous note from its quasi-idiomatic register. Or, in the above-referenced “Practice,” comedy derives from the title word appearing 16.5 times in Malla and Parker’s manipulation of a 2006 press conference answer during a Q & A with Allen Iverson. Hearing Iverson say the words is one thing, but a sense of humorous dramatic irony exists in the text, endowing it with a sense of absurdity. Though not all of the sources are from the contemporary media age, many of them can still be found in text or video form, and watching/reading them is highly encouraged exercise.
But Malla and Parker’s purpose is not one of ridicule or absurdism. A substantial thread of Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion is that of the power and nature of human experience. If there is sublimity and humor, there is also the moral repugnance of Don Imus’ 2007 remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team alongside Fuzzy Zoeller’s offensive “joke” about Tiger Woods (collaged with other texts in the poem “Let the Thugs Play”); there are the injurious words that caused an altercation between Marco Materazzi and Zinedine Zidane during the 2006 World Cup (“Very Hard Words”).
At some level, even if athletes are engaging in some form of play, both the activity and language are serious; both have consequences. Both involve human emotion in myriad complex ways, all of which carry gravitas.
While Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion has many strengths, the collection excels most at manipulation and arrangement. If one of a poet’s many jobs is to serve as a gauge of surrounding popular culture—it’s wonders and disgraces, heights and depths—it is not a trivial task to curate, arrange, display, edit, manipulate, and re-present it back to us in a form that allows us to, as much as we can, review and experience again the nature of action and utterance. In this, there’s a strong kinship between projects such as Goldsmith’s 7 American Deaths and Disasters and Jeff Griffin’s Lost and, both of which are texts trafficking in utterances remade and objects never intended for such scrutiny and re-reading.
In the human connections that the reader makes to these quirky and obsessive speakers, there’s a thread of Sarah Blake’s Mr. West, as well. Perhaps it is this quality that makes the reading of seemingly innocuous sports texts surprising—that we need not necessarily know really who any of these figures are except that they are speaking to us, and that even though it seems that celebrity, skill, talent, and hype stand between us, the flaws emerge, the humor surfaces, and we all have to confront some other part of our nature in which suddenly the spotlight is turned on us. And what would we say?