Jun. 24, 2003

Losing Steps

by Stephen Dunn

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Poem: "Losing Steps," by Stephen Dunn from Different Hours (Norton).

Losing Steps

It's probably a Sunday morning
in a pickup game, and it's clear
you've begun to leave
fewer people behind.
Your fakes are as good as ever,
but when you move
you're like the Southern Pacific
the first time a car kept up with it,
your opponent at your hip,
with you all the way
to the rim. Five years earlier
he'd have been part of the air
that stayed behind you
in your ascendance.
On the sidelines they're saying,
He's lost a step

In a few more years
it's adult night in a gymnasium
streaked with the abrupt scuff marks
of high schoolers, and another step
leaves you like a wire
burned out in a radio.
You're playing defense,
someone jukes right, goes left,
and you're not fooled
but he's past you anyway,
dust in your eyes,
a few more points against you.

Suddenly you're fifty;
if you know anything about steps
you're playing chess
with an old, complicated friend.
But you're walking to a schoolyard
where kids are playing full-court,
telling yourself
the value of the experience, a worn down
basketball under your arm,
your legs hanging from your waist
like misplaced sloths in a country
known for its cheetahs and its sunsets

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of the journalist and novelist Pete Hamill, born in Brooklyn, New York (1935). By the time he was eight his father introduced him to the hard-drinking lifestyle, bringing him along to his favorite bar, Gallagher's. Hamill said, "This is where men go, I thought; this is what men do." By age ten he was drinking beer with his friends from the street. Still, he got good grades in school and eventually landed a job at the New York Post. In his book A Drinking Life: A Memoir (1994), he said, "I drank in the morning when I worked nights, and at night when I worked days." At a New Year's Eve party in 1972 he looked into a glass of vodka, decided it would be his last, and it was. He has been a productive writer ever since, with novels such as Flesh and Blood (1977), and Forever (2003), which was published this year. Pete Hamill, who said, "The best newspapermen I know are those most thrilled by the daily pump of city room excitements; they long fondly for a 'good murder'; they pray that assassinations, wars, catastrophes break on their editions."

It's the birthday of the essayist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce, born near Horse Cave Creek, Ohio (1842). Bierce was famous as a California journalist for his fearlessness; they called him "the wickedest man in San Francisco" and "Bitter Bierce." He once wrote a book review that said, "The covers of this book are too far apart." His major fiction is collected in the books Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and Can Such Things Be? (1893), but he's best known for The Devil's Dictionary (1906), his book of ironic definitions. It includes definitions such as, "Saint. A dead sinner revised and edited," and "Bride. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her."

It's the birthday of poet Stephen Dunn, born in New York City (1939). He's published over a dozen books of poetry, including Different Hours, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and Local Visitations (2003), which came out this year. In 1962 at Hofstra University he was a key player on one of the greatest basketball teams in school history. They called him "Radar" for his jump shot against the zone. After college he wrote brochures in New York City for Nabisco. He was successful, but he quit the well-paying job and moved to Spain with his wife, where they lived for almost a year on $2200. He went to write a novel and ended up writing the poetry. He is the first male in his family to live to his sixties. He wrote: "Because in my family the heart goes first/ and hardly anybody makes it out of his fifties,/ I think I'll stay up late with a few bandits/ of my choice and resist good advice."

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