When the Wood Clacks Out Your Name, by Marjorie Maddox

When the Wood Clacks Out Your Name
These poems are so good, they almost make me want to watch a baseball game. But why read a book of baseball poems if I’m not a fan of the sport? Well, for one thing, Maddox is a Central Pennsylvania poet, and I wanted to get to know her work better. And I’m interested in tightly focused poetry chapbooks, having just published one of my own. People who know little about tools claim to have enjoyed my tool odes, and I was curious to see if I’d find these baseball poems similarly engaging.

I found I did, largely because of the abundant word-music. I was hooked from the second line, “their limbs limber with summer.” And at least half the poems didn’t require more than a casual knowledge of the game, as in “Readying the Field,” which begins,

His tractor tugs dirt in a circle,
combs through clods as solid as baseballs,
then hoes the whole again,
signaling the mound a bull’s eye.
Only then does he tip
his stare to the square
diamond, smooth all earth
between home and first.

Maddox keeps things lively by varying the contents as much as possible, and her family connection to a pivotal event in baseball and civil rights history — her great-uncle was the Dodgers general manager who signed Jackie Robinson — adds an additional layer of interest. She also lives in Williamsport, home of the Little League World Series, so of course there’s a poem about that, too. Other unique takes on the sport include “Baseball at the Historical Village,” “The All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League,” “The Babe’s Babes,” and “Patron Saints of Baseball,” the opening poem, which assigns Catholic saints to the various positions. Maddox even captures the giddy anticipation of the season in “The Calm Before”:

Between hands, the shifting tip
of sky chatters, rattles, taps its bebop of a ball
into something large. There is nothing
to say that can’t wait for spectators
that may not come. These nights,
practice swings at our world
with a whoosh and misses

The collection ends with the multi-part “Rules of the Game,” which lost me more often than not, though I was curious enough to look up the unfamiliar terms on Wikipedia. I had no idea, for example, that there were so many ways of, and reasons for, sliding into base. And I was captivated by the contrast between “The Pop-Up” and “The Sacrifice Bunt,” the first a “disastrous beauty,” the second a graceless yet gracious maneuver in which

humility makes the hero
squaring off to fail his own trail to base.
He entices the ball with his bat,
kills it with a tap,
shoves the coveted corpse
part way to first.

Of course, the real test of a book of poems on any specialized subject is whether it can draw out universal lessons without straining too hard or hitting the reader over the head. In poem after poem, When the Wood Clacks Out Your Name shows how to do it right, as in the closing stanzas of “The Pitch”:

Snap here for a fastball,
here for a curve,
cut your fingernails square
for a knuckler, that pigeon
flapping awkwardly
out the barn door of a hand.

Never let the eyes tell
the fingers’ deception,
the plans of the palm,
deep-secret mathematics
shooting great lengths
from arm to plate.

Sounds like good advice for poets, too, somehow.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

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