"Baseball is reassuring," says the poet Sharon Olds. "It makes me feel as if the world is not going to blow up." This Sporting Life (Milkweed Editions, $8.50), a praiseworthy collection of contemporary American poems about sports and games, has a similar effect.
From the Greek poet Pindar's Olympian verses to A.E. Housman's elegy to a young athlete, poets have attempted to capture the intensity and sensations of sports. Even if little in that immense body of sporting verse can be considered transcendent, much of it is very good indeed. This Sporting Life holds to form. In particular the poems of Louise Erdrich, Raymond Carver, Halvard Johnson, Susan Firer, Donald Hall and Olds are worth several readings for their variety of images. All told, the book's editors, Emilie Buchwald and Ruth Boston, have chosen 107 poems by 72 poets for this anthology.
If one has to rank them, the selections about hunting, basketball, baseball and sports as a metaphor for life are probably the strongest. Yet, throughout, the 173-page volume brims with unexpected enchantment. Johnson's description of a softball game in South Korea and, especially, his magical Spiel about an eternal pop-up make the Newburgh, N.Y., poet a worthwhile discovery. Carver and Erdrich, better known for their prose, prove their mettle with meter and image as well: Carver with his thoughts as he views a photograph of his fisherman father (Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-second Year), and Erdrich with her vivid descriptions of animals being stalked by hunters (Jacklight).
Tones range from the sadness Elliot Richman feels for the intrepid jogger who "slowed once / and death caught him" (On the Tomb of Kalamachius, the Jogger), to the ecstasy Michael Dennis Browne expresses as he discovers a handicapped swimmer, "who otherwise moves with crutches / and stiff braces, is strong" (Handicapped Children Swimming). Paul Zarzyski is whimsically touching as he begs, "Please don't tell my mother / I'm a rodeo cowboy. She thinks I play / piano at the whorehouse in Wallace, Idaho" (Dear Mom). Bart Schneider speaks for many when he writes, "There is no solitude like baseball" (Basket Catch).
There is also nothing quite as satisfying as good poetry. If you share that opinion and have a love for sports of all sorts, you're not likely to find anything that combines the two in more pleasing fashion than This Sporting Life.