Register Friday | June 22 | 2018

Hockey and Poetry

Do Not Go Softly Into That Good Ice

Since making a cameo appearance in Zach Wells’ Canadian literature column, The Zed Factor, I’ve been looking for a way to incorporate poetry into The Masochist. A quick survey of Canadian literary history would only uncover the usual suspects—Stephen Scriver, John B. Lee, Al Purdy, Charles G. D. Roberts, Richard Harrison—so I’ve opted for something fresh in the niche market of hockey poetry.

matt robinson, one of the poets who took part in the Alden Nowlan festival in Fredericton last month, has just published tracery & interplay, a chapbook from Frog Hollow Press. Notwithstanding the annoying lack of capital letters—which, let me be clear, serves no useful poetic purpose whatsoever (and I encourage email and commentary from those who think they can defend this pretentious practice; e.e. cummings and bp nichol proved the point nicely, thanks)—robinson’s chapbook is poised to take a top rank in the pantheon of Canadian hockey literature. His third collection, no cage contains a stare that well (due from ECW Press next fall), will include the poems from t&i as well as many more, all devoted to our home and native game.

From what I’ve seen in this chapbook, robinson is a franchise player. The book’s tone is dark, and it is populated with gloomy characters—a spiteful Zamboni driver, a nearly blinded beer-leaguer, a maimed minor-hockey coach—who all take their rightful place in Saturday-morning nostalgia. Even in the lighter poems, there is a sense of foreboding: danger is just a flipped bus or a broken skate blade away.

What ties it all together is robinson’s skill with language. He rags words like Gretzky ragged the puck on the penalty kill, using commas as picks, deking around a semicolon, waiting, considering, faking a drop pass to enjambment before finally dishing off to the next clause. Take “a stance, among other things”:

 

…a goalmouth scramble

recollection, it is a kinetic echo; near
arbitrary, but dependent upon, among other
things, the slow melt of ice in front
of a crowd and the strength of ash or steel.


Another one of robinson’s strengths is that he attacks the clichés of hockey writing (and sports writing) head-on, challenging himself, in his signature dipsy-doodleing style, to go beyond the usual dead metaphors. “cycling, they work the boards near thin” is a prime example:

and we try to speak to each other in knowing tones about what we’ve seen so
close. but to call it, to make some nodding
reference to, trench warfare is a dis-service to
both, their vital straining. they churn, but—
to metaphorize this loosely is a flaccid, flagging
violence—a slack-skinned, clumsy chuckle
of an idea; a pen sprung and cracking ink
every which way: only a cruel nonsense
and its stain.

In “dressing-room religion,” the poet’s master stroke is his extended characterization of time, another abused abstraction, as a broken leather strap on the speaker’s goalie pad:

 

time became an issue, became concrete, became a musty, sweat-soaked counting that had clawed its way out of
a bag full of precautions and protections. it showed itself

as resurgent, as lording over everything— even the finest craftsmanship and tanning that northern
ontario could produce.


robinson writes about the usual hockey subject matter (sticks, skates, pads, ice, Zamboni drivers), but with an insight so new, it hangs as obviously as Stanley Cup banners in the Forum. Take his “zamboni driver’s lament,” for example. I have been a Zamboni driver (oh yes, the Masochist has his hockey credentials in order), and I was certainly not as bitter and hateful as robinson’s man. To me, it seemed the ultimate hockey job (next to player, coach or general manager): I had an all-access pass and I controlled the magical ice. It was a little like being an artist: each flood was an individual work, with its own signature and imperfections. (I guess I should write my own poem.) Yet, despite this difference of experience, robinson’s portrayal rings true because he writes, inside out, from the perspective of the driver, but also through the eyes of a player:

 

tell me: can you understand what it is to be something most others only wait,
grudgingly, through; endure? i can and
do, can and do. i am a common
cold, the advertisements that linger too long
before a feature.


It’s not the driver who creates the hate, but the innocent house leaguers, anxiously shuffling in the hallway. The ice becomes “a constant wound / to dress, a scar i run myself along.”

robinson inadvertently hits a timely nerve in “when skates break” with the line “when the chill anticipation of this october night / has shuddered and cracked—given way like we / imagine our childhood ponds never did, never have—.” There was no hockey this October, or at least no “thrill of an oilers game on tv out east” or anywhere else for that matter. I believe this is the only mention of professional hockey in tracery & interplay, further proof that the NHL is only one of thousands of pucks shot around Canadian ice. Yet the poignancy of this line proves (at least to me) that the league still matters as a way of holding us all together; it’s a living reflection of the dreams we play out in our minds, on the street, on the ice and in basements, “our knees— / carpet-raw, bloody with tape-ball hockey and too much / sleep-over sugar.”

Lastly, I should mention that this is no ordinary chapbook. From the colophon: “Covered in Grey Flannel (a wool and cotton paper from India) over an inner cover of St. Armand Charcoal Grey (a handmade cotton paper), the text was printed on Mohawk Superfine. The flyleaf is Thai Mango Leaf.” All this to explain that Caryl Wyse Peters at Frog Hollow makes really nice books. tracery & interplay was only produced in a limited edition of one hundred, though, so you’ll either have to hurry, wait for the full-length collection or, if you must have more, check out house league photo on the Frog Hollow website. With this book, robinson leaps over Lee, Harrison and the rest into his rightful spot as Canada’s premier hockey poet.

John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner. The Masochist appears every second Wednesday