Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Nineteen: Losing Season by Jack Ridl

Yikes! A day late and I had written this several days ago.
Okay. Let me state up front that I'm hardly unbiased here. Jack was my poetry instructor oh so many years ago in college. The fact that I have yet to publish a single poem means this is my chance to take full revenge on him for failing to propel me to the Kinnellian heights of literature. The only problems with this idea are as follows: 1) He was/is an outstanding teacher who instilled in me a love of poetry that has lasted well over 20 years. 2) He also taught my son who is publishing some poetry, thus meaning the problem probably lies with me (as I know it does). 3) He is now a friend. 4) Losing Season is one incredible book.

In "Losing Season" Ridl has created a world which many of us know and the rest of us can enter. Here we follow the losing season of Wilson High School through the eyes of their coach, their players, the bus driver, the equipment manager's wife, the coaches' wife, the cheerleader, the ex-cheerleader, and more. Sport's fans (and everybody else) will love the conversational nature of Ridl's poetry, which has always been one of his strengths and why live readings by him are a never-miss opportunity. Ridl does not talk down to his readers, but lets his poetry speak with people. These characters are not abstract representations of some psychological angst; they are "real" people. Ridl knows that poetry is not so much created as found, and he has found poetry in the lives of people struggling through a losing season. Why losing? Because in the end we have another depressing, self-examination of a poet who finds writing cheaper than therapy? No. Ridl takes us through a losing season because such a season is what makes people pause and reflect on their roles in the game and in life.

The book reads like good records (the LP kind) used to be. Each poem can stand on its own, but as a whole we get an entire story which gets fuller and stronger as we move toward the end. Ridl divides the books into four quarters, putting the entire book in the context of a game. His main focus is the coach, the predominant voice in the book. He is a sympathetic character who seeks no sympathy. He can be tough on students, in awe of his daughter, overwhelmed by coaching, and bored by teaching. His emotions hit the range, yet he seems someone who is comfortable with himself if not his place in life. A history teacher, in the end he shocks his students. "'History is hell,'"/he says. The class/looks up. 'Go find a job.'" He notes that on his school mailbox he has gone from being "Mr. Daniels" to being "Coach." That role, that title, have now become his identity.

But Ridl shows the impact of that identity on everyone else around the coach. His daughter is the "coach's daughter" and his wife the "coach's wife." They are identified by him, suffer the losses and public humiliation with him, and dream alongside him of other alternatives in life. But here they are in the midst of a community, surrounded by an assistant coach who simply wants to be the head coach (a very funny character), a band director who has always been sidelines for sports, an an equipment manager's wife who eats alone instead of attending the games.

One student making several appearances is "Scrub," the eternal bench warmer who never gets in the game and whose main role is to play "tough defense" during practice. What emerges over several poems is a young man who goes home to a dad drinking beer and watching tv, but never goes the games. He dreams of injuries to gain him the sympathy of girls and ends up dancing to the "applause of the falling snow" in the light of a street lamp. When his little sister says she is "scared the sun will go out," he takes her hand but offers no argument as she notes "'But it's fire,' she said./ 'Fire goes out.'" Scrub is a person we want to reach out, but in the end we see that he will probably be fine in life even without our help.

The book is not all character studies, and Ridl has the master hand for the well turned phrase. The empty gym is warmed by "The furnace, reliable/as grace" and as the young cheerleader turns from the mirror "On the/way out, she turns and/looks over her shoulder." He manages the phrasing throughout so that it is never forced, arising naturally from his conversation with the reader.

Anyone familiar with Ridl's work, and it is all worthwhile, will hear a familiar voice. But this book strikes new ground in its overarching storyline and material. Ridl has written a book which is needed desperately in today's increasingly fragmented world of writing. This is a book of poetry for the poetry fans, but more importantly is a book that can bring people into poetry. Sports fans will recognize themselves and others and be able to interact with the poems. The non-sports people will also find plenty of characters to grab onto and a storyline to follow because in the end this is not a book about basketball, but about people. Ridl understands and expresses those other voices, allowing us insight into people we sometimes tend to see as two dimensional, whether it be the jock or the custodian. People are not two-dimensional to Ridl, and the book fills out because of his refusal to overlook anyone.

Ridl is well placed to write such a book. Not only is he a successful poet, he is the son of a basketball coach and played sports himself. He knows of whence he speaks and we all benefit as a result. Give this book to everyone you know and watch the world of poetry grow new followers.

Reading Challenges

Ha! None this week. I read the book twice and returned to parts at different times. This is great stuff and the reading was nothing but enjoyable.

Up Next
Dean Kuiper's non-fiction book: "Operation Bite Back: Rod Coronado's War to Save American Wilderness." Sounded interesting and I've already started -- learning plenty of new information about environmentalists with an...uh...aggressive bent. Read a short review on my favorite web email, The Very Short List, so off I go.

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