Read the poem (scroll down to “Old Men Playing Basketball” at the bottom of the page)
What is so great about this poet is that he demonstrates masterful observation and insight in to the poetic musicality of mundane subjects. What is so great about this poem is that it is an excellent demonstration of Fairchild’s gift–usually applied to blue collar work–in this case applied to basketball.
Fairchild chooses moments from the language of basketball: “pick and roll”, “fake and drive” as well as shows precise details about the “old men” from the VFW that in themselves give insight into their character without having to explain much: “army fatigues”, “house shoes”, memories of drive-in theaters. This is one of the great paradoxes of art: that specificity creates universality.
This holds true, for example, in drawing, where a precise study of what is renders the most realistic result–we train the eye to see and sketch, rather than to simply produce symbols of things (a sun in the corner, a stick man, a tree with a balloon of foliage). Likewise, Fairchild’s poetic “eye” in this poem demonstrates the ability to pick out highly poetic moments and express them through detail.
Fairchild also demonstrates an excellent understanding of timing, and capitalizes well on the momentum that builds in this poem. One of the most poetic moments in the poem comes toward the end:
A glass wand /
of autumn light breaks over the backboard.
This line plays on numerous simultaneous associations in our mind, pleasing us and adding energy to the poem: glass breaking, backboards breaking, “light breaks”–a common phrase in so many other poems, as is “autumn light”–so many meanings are rolled in to this ending, it builds energy. Thanks to this energy, the opportunity opens up for a moment of magical realism:
Boys rise up in old men, wings begin to sprout / at their backs.
Here the detailed realism of the poem finds itself confronted with fantasy, as wings sprout like angels or gods, representing the lift of youthfulness as well as the act of going up for the basket when taking a shot.
Then final line can then continue with a complete suspension of time, just as in a fantasy of the glamorous basketball player self–the suspended animation of glory, the “time standing still” effect finally beautifully unleashed, capturing the essential power of the timeless youthful spirit in these old men: “The ball turns in the darkening air.”
This is a remarkable poem, one which transcends ordinary circumstances through keen, keen observation and brilliant poetic language and timing. The entire book, The Art Of The Lathe is like this: strong poem after strong poem–precise, brilliant, transcending–making Fairchild one of my heroes.