An athlete turned poet considers a new racquet

After a lifetime of sports injuries, he's seeking a lower-impact pastime.

click to enlarge A new racquet - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
A new racquet

… and now his stomach’s soft his books

press out his veins as he walks

and no one looks …

“Get off him, you big brute!”

My girl friend’s voice — she was a cheerleader at Mt. Lakes High School and could generate decent volume when excited — penetrated to the bottom of the pile, where I lay beneath the oversized body of Boonton High’s All-State fullback and assorted friends. I appreciated her support, but in truth would have been happy to lie there a little longer. I was OK, though a tooth felt a little loose…

I’ve loved sports all my life, despite having, in my youth, injured most parts of my body playing the American holy trinity of football, baseball and basketball. All other accessible sports — tennis, golf, swimming — we called sissy and other impolite synonyms. Blessèd be the bruised, for they shall understand mortality.

In football, besides a concussion or two, I broke my collarbone and my nose (they took a small bone out, so I can bend my nose almost flat, a parlor trick Jeanne has discouraged me from repeating). In basketball I played with both wrists tightly taped because of fractured navicular bones — my wrists still hurt when I try to open a tight jar lid. In baseball I played second base, not particularly well, once blocking a hard ground ball with my mouth, which resulted in some extremely unpleasant stitches along my mucous membrane. When Jeanne and I went for check-ups before we were married, the doctor told her I was accident-prone.

As I gradually gave up on various levels and brackets of football, baseball and basketball, we decided to take up tennis. Jeanne and I have played it for decades, with great energy and joy. But now, it too seems too much for my body, as new and old injuries — foot, knee, hip, shoulder — are weighing me down like accumulated shrapnel.

At first, I considered replacing tennis with badminton. I felt confident, because for a brief long-ago year (1957) I lived with my father, and we had a badminton set on the side lawn; in late afternoons we’d take on all comers. My portly dad, built along the lines of Jackie Gleason, was — like Gleason — light on his feet, and could spin around on the grass and consistently snap the shuttlecock back over the net. One Fourth of July, when a neighborhood tournament was set up, we sailed through, undefeated. For a year we welcomed all competition: neighborhood kids, particularly, loved to challenge us.

But now I’m thinking of a single day, years later: July 21, 1969. Jeanne and I had taken students to the University of Sussex in England for about six weeks of summer study. I remember the date because that morning we huddled around a small TV set and watched Neil Armstrong take the first steps on the moon, and heard him say, somewhat confusingly, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Afterwards, wanting to work off steam, I went to the gym, deserted except for a smallish young Asian man tapping a badminton shuttle on his racquet. Recalling my neighborhood championship, I walked over and asked if he’d like to play a game. He nodded. He may have said something, but I forget.

What I do remember is, I didn’t get a point. If I went back, he dropped it forward. If I came up, he popped it over my head. I made a few exasperated exclamations, and hoped he didn’t understand English. Nevertheless, I didn’t break a bone — or, come to think of it, a sweat.

So, maybe badminton’s not the best way, after all. I’m going to limp downtown and check out the Shuffleboard Club.

… but deep in his bone stadium

the roar of the crowd wells

as he shows them again

crossing line after line

with crackling fingers heart red-dogging

with rage and joy over the broken backs

of words words words

—Both quotes from “To An Athlete Turned Poet” by Peter Meinke (The Contracted World, U. of Pittsburgh Press, 2006)

Peter & Jeanne’s latest book is The Shape of Poetry (U. of Tampa Press, 2012).

Go to jail!!

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