Nov. 7, 2003

Old Men Playing Basketball

by B. H. Fairchild

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Poem: "Old Men Playing Basketball," by B.H. Fairchild, from The Art of the Lathe: Poems (Alice James Books).

Old Men Playing Basketball

The heavy bodies lunge, the broken language
of fake and drive, glamorous jump shot
slowed to a stutter. Their gestures, in love
again with the pure geometry of curves,

rise toward the ball, falter, and fall away.
On the boards their hands and fingertips
tremble in tense little prayers of reach
and balance. Then, the grind of bone

and socket, the caught breath, the sigh,
the grunt of the body laboring to give
birth to itself. In their toiling and grand
sweeps, I wonder, do they still make love

to their wives, kissing the undersides
of their wrists, dancing the old soft-shoe
of desire? And on the long walk home
from the VFW, do they still sing

to the drunken moon? Stands full, clock
moving, the one in army fatigues
and houseshoes says to himself, pick and roll,
and the phrase sounds musical as ever,

radio crooning songs of love after the game,
the girl leaning back in the Chevy's front seat
as her raven hair flames in the shuddering
light of the outdoor movie, and now he drives,

gliding toward the net. A glass wand
of autumn light breaks over the backboard.
Boys rise up in old men, wings begin to sprout
at their backs. The ball turns in the darkening air.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, born in Ft. MacLeod, Alberta (1943). At the age of nine she went to the hospital with polio. To cheer herself up, she began singing to other patients. She learned to play guitar by reading a book by the folk legend Pete Seeger. As a young woman, she moved to Toronto and began to play at coffeehouses. She quickly became famous in folk circles, and drifted between Detroit, New York and California. In 1969, she was invited to play at Woodstock, but she was scheduled to appear on a talk show soon after the event, so she didn't go. To make up for it, a year later she wrote the famous song "Woodstock." She's best known for her album Blue, which came out in 1971.

It's the birthday of the screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, born in New York City (1897). For a while he worked as a critic for The New Yorker, and then in 1926 he moved to Hollywood to write for the movies. He wrote to a friend, "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." He worked on the screenplay for Citizen Kane (1941), which some believe to be the greatest film ever made.

It's the birthday of writer Albert Camus, born in Mondovi, Algeria (1913). He spent his life writing novels and essays, and he was friends with the French existentialist philosophers. His father died in World War I when he was still a baby, and he grew up in poverty. When he was a teenager, he came down with tuberculosis. He recovered, but the disease kept returning for the rest of his life. As a young man he tried to become a philosophy teacher, but they turned him down because of his illness. Instead, he worked as a journalist, but what he really wanted to do was write novels. He said, "The only thing is to decide which is the most aesthetic form of suicide: marriage and a 40-hour-a-week job, or a revolver." He began to write, but he wasn't sure if his books would ever be any good. In 1940, he moved to an Algerian town called Oran, where he spent time on the beach. One day, he saw a friend of his get into a fight with some Arab men and threaten them with a pistol. Soon afterward, he worked the scene into a novel called The Stranger, which became his most famous book. The book begins, "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know." The narrator kills someone and goes to prison, where he eventually reconciles himself to his situation. He says, "For the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself—so like a brother, really—I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again."

In the spring of 1940, Camus moved to Paris just as the war began with Nazi Germany. He got a job designing page layouts for a newspaper, and devoted most of his attention to writing The Stranger. He finished the book just before Hitler's tanks rolled into the city. In the turmoil of that time, he wrote letters to a woman named Francine, who soon became his wife. He said, "I only know that I will maintain what I believe to be true in my own universe, and as an individual I will give in to nothing."

The Stranger was published in 1942, followed by a collection of essays, The Myth of Sisyphus (1943). He also wrote The Plague (1947), a novel about the way ordinary people react when disease terrorizes their city. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957, and he was killed in a car accident in 1960. Camus said, "You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life."

It's the birthday of the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, born in the Ukraine (1879). He was one of the leaders of the ruthless civil war that overthrew the Russian Tsar and established the communist state. Later, he opposed the dictator Josef Stalin and became an enemy of the Soviet government. Apart from his political activities, Trotsky read and wrote a great deal. In his later years, he wrote many books about Russian history and Marxist ideas. In 1924 he wrote Literature and Revolution, a book that talks about art's relationship to politics. Trotsky said, "Learning carries within itself certain dangers, because out of necessity one has to learn from one's enemies."

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