This has been a week of high drama in the Hoosier state. Some downtown streets in Indianapolis are closed because of the coming Super Bowl. It’s possible to zipline above Capitol Street and take in a free art show, TURF Idada, in the neoclassical abandoned City Hall, mere blocks from where our governor, Mitch Daniels, just signed a controversial “right-to-work” bill into law. While walking around town, caught up in the hoopla, and exercising my right to protest what I find unjust, I’m mourning the death of Wisława Szymborska, the Polish Nobel Laureate. Reticent in the face of her renown, Szymborska was a poem drawn to “what ifs?” In “Hitler’s First Photograph”—a poem mostly in baby talk— she depicts the infamous Führer as an infant, his future still an open question. Often, she brilliantly entered the minds of others: a cat unable to understand his master’s death, Lot’s wife just before she turned into a pillar of salt.
A poet who touches on the concerns of this week is John Woods (1926-1995), born in Martinsville, Indiana. For many years, Woods taught literature and creative writing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, but his poetry never hedges its emotional bets as the work of academic poets so frequently does. The following poem splices together different things: a high school football bonfire, oblique references to union trades, and the war between ambition and our mortal bodies.
The Fire Poem: Union Man You stood around the bonfire with your grass friends the night before the game your school must win, your foreheads reddening. Remember, the hottest leap came when the boards and crates were nearly consumed. I’ll come back to that. Then, embers, ashdrift, the birds welded to the tree by moonlight. A seam runs down the brainpan, down the navel with its hair zipper, scrotum and labial fold. Some days, you don’t know which way to turn. On the right, the City winked and rumbled. There you must win to keep your standing. On the left, the swamp sucked itself. All the cars opened their eyes at once. We stand in the same skin our whole lives, fingering dotted lines. The same surreal plumbing links the men’s room with the women’s. All the stools flushed at once. The doors were hot to the touch that Sunday you trembled to see what poems the left hand had written to the right. You hoped people made love better than they could draw. Here, in my union suit, Long John with the open flap, I tell you from the slope of fifty, the game ends with a draw. I walk in spark and tinder. It would hurt your eyes to look at me.
The opening of this poem evokes the scene of many a Friday night game with an old-fashioned bonfire and all that youthful ambition: “your school must win.” The phrase “your grass friends” makes me think the poem’s narrator is talking to a younger self, someone still “green.”
The next indented stanza continues in that vein, contrasting that younger self’s ambition with something more primal or primordial: the swampy, sexy world of the body. And then the poem begins to turn, as all good poems do, sweeping toward the sermonic, the universal: “We stand in the same skin / our whole lives.” The worlds of sex and toilets, stamped with cultural taboos and separated by gender, are part of what it means to live in our bodies.
Which will win? The part of us that Freud called the ego: the driving, working, thinking self? Or the bodily id?
The poem’s speaker, past the “slope of fifty,” sees that contest, unlike the earlier game, ending with a draw. The knowledge he has now—of the body, of ambition—would probably terrify his younger self. Now the veteran of many a contest, he walks “in spark and thunder.” Now at the age when he is almost “consumed,” it would hurt that younger self to look at him.
The above poem appeared in John Woods, The Valley of Minor Animals, Port Townsend, WA: Dragon Gate, 1982.