Like many other youngsters, a part of my youth was spent on either a football field, baseball diamond or basketball court, and even now when they are very probably long deceased, I am able to recall the names of coaches in both junior and senior high school, am able to remember the excitement and purity of our team play in those years when the euphoria of winning and tears of defeat were so finely balanced, when either one seemed to be the most important thing in our still green lives. There is something so genuine and throat-catching about the play of young athletes, and too often that passion dissipates when it builds to professional sports where everything is “Show me the money!”
Rare to open a collection of poems by a single author and find that as you read from front to back, each successive poem is one that grips from first line to last. Of course, there are many books of poetry that include an impressive number of memorable poems, but for this reader at least, those that hit a homerun, throw a perfect game—those collections are the unexpected find. The winning collection before me now is one called Losing Season by Jack Ridl.
Jack Ridl is the author of eight poetry collections and for thirty-six years taught poetry and literature before his retirement from Hope College in Holland, Michigan. His work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, The Denver Quarterly, Chelsea, Free Lunch, The Journal, Passages North, and Poetry East. Ridl lives with his wife along a creek that winds into Lake Michigan.
The American experience of high school sports is the focus of Losing Season, Jack Ridl’s latest collection of poems chronicling a year of hope and defeat on and off the basketball court in a small town. Like a basketball game, the book is divided into four quarters, the poems tracing the season in a cycle that follows the hope, the enthusiasm and disappointment of the team players. At its center is the coach, now in middle age and struggling with the tension between his job, his marriage and the widening gulf between himself and his daughter. The youthful exuberance of daily practices with his high school players serves to remind the fifty-year-old of his own aging.
Coach hurls the ball against the garage door,
grabs it on the rebound. He’s missed ten
in a row. He steps to the line, bounces
the ball twice, hard, and the fans from
thirty years ago send their hopes across
their weary lungs. He listens to the hush
of the home crowd while the taunts
of those from out of town float through
the rafters down across the backboard,
spinning around and around the rim.
He slams the ball one more time, feels
the leather, eyes the hoop, shoots.
The ball caroms off the back of the rim, rolls
across the driveway into the herb garden
his wife planted the year they found this house.
Once he could drop nine out of ten
from the line, hit half his jumps shots
from twenty feet. Coach sits down at
the top of the key, stares, sees himself
bringing it up against the press, faking,
shaking his shoulders, stutter stepping, shifting
the ball left hand to right , then back, then up,
his legs exploding, his wrist firing, the ball
looping up, down, through the hoop, making
the net shimmer, the crowd roar. He gets up,
goes over to the garden, reaches for the ball,
stops and pulls some weeds growing through
the oregano, basil, sage, and thyme.