Sunday, 29 March 2015

THE CROSSING PLACE: TRANSTROMER VIA GARBAREK

In 1984 Jan Garbarek released a record called It's OK to listen to the gray voice, whose title I recognised as a line from a Tomas Transtromer poem. I'd been reading Transtromer for a long time, and I had already written poetry inspired by various jazz tunes, including some by Garbarek and Eberhard Weber. Listening to this music prompted a couple of poems, a second-generation pass-the-parcel regeneration. I find they're closer to the music than to the original poem, though not a shade on either, but I am pleased I can still find echoes of music and poetry in them.

I wrote this poem in July 1986. As it happened, the next summer I met Garbarek and Weber on a flight to Oslo for the Bislett Games, and I got them to sign a chapbook of mine called Mucho Mojo which I happened to be carrying, and which included a poem written after a tune by Weber. I sent the two Transtromer/Garbarek poems to him ('just put Jan Garbarek, Oslo,' he told me. 'That's all the address you'll need') but I heard no more.

Now Tomas Transtromer has died. I'll likely write more on him soon, but for now I'll share one of those poems. 'The Crossing Place' was published in Hollands Maandblad in 1988, and in The Windhorse Review (Yarmouth, Nova Scotia) in 1993. I was intending it to be the title poem of a short collection...


THE CROSSING PLACE

Empty borders extend
All the way into the center of the night
I could be
Driving a heap through downtown Bridgeport
At 3am snow falling & wipers
Rocking me to sleep. I know
If I sleep now, with this image in my mind
I will have dreams, & I may never wake
Again. They may take
Me across the ocean which divides me
From myself, never again be there
On the other side, where you were
Waking, sleeping, peacefully where
Falling snow makes a blanket, sparkling
Then melting, to keep us warm.



Friday, 27 March 2015

IN MEMORIAM CHUCK BEDNARIK: MY NFLUK COLUMN

In the NFL offseason my NFLUK Friday Morning Tight End column becomes Friday Monthly Tight End, and this month's, which is up at the nfluk.com website (you can link to it here) was dedicated to Chuck Bednarik, who died last Saturday. Here's what I wrote:




REMEMBERING CONCRETE CHARLIE

If you've been reading my columns for any length of time you'll know I'm an apostate American in the sense of not believing more is always better, and I've been critical of many moves the NFL has made in that direction. But I have to say honestly that I admire the way in which they have turned the off-season into a non-stop attention-getter. I still would prefer to see the draft come in the next few weeks, but after the most fascinating free-agency period I can remember, and the creation of the 'veterans combine' (which falls way short of the return of a development league, but is a good step, and ought to be called the 'veterans pro day?) I appreciate what the league has done to stay in the spotlight since the Super Bowl. If it gets any busier, I'm going to need y weekly column back in the off-season!

Iron Mike is, however, at heart old school, so this month's column won't be about any of the issues and moves that have filled your consciousness for the past two months. Instead, it's about Chuck Bednarik, because they didn't come any more old-school than Concrete Charlie.

You probably know he was the last of the full-time both-ways players, at center and linebacker. EJ Holub might have challenged that mark, but Holub, who played for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs had nine knee surgeries, and played mostly at linebacker until he moved back to center. In fact he started Super Bowl II at linebacker, and Super Bowl IV at center; no one else has ever done that. But they couldn't keep Bednarik from playing both ways. In 1960, when the Eagles won the NFL title, he was 35 years old, and exclusively a center until Bob Pellegrini was injured in week five. Bednarik, formerly the middle backer, assumed his spot on the outside, which is where he was when he levelled Frank Gifford at Yankee Stadium. The hit put Gifford out of the game for a year and a half, with concussion symptoms, and was immortalised in John Zimerman's photo of Bednarik celebrating over Gifford's prostrate form. But when you watch the film you realise that Bednarik wasn't celebrating the hit, that the photo has been misinterpreted for half a century.

On film the hit looks like a body slam. I worked with Frank at ABC, and I recall his talking about it only once, in Kitzbuehel, Austria, where we were covering the skiing. He said it looked worse than it was, that it was the impact with the hard infield surface of Yankee Stadium that had done the real damage. He emphasized that the hit was perfectly legal (Giants' fans like to insist it was a clothesline) but it came from his blindside. In fact, you see Bednarik do a great job of playing the scrambling quarterback, George Shaw, then chasing down Gifford after the catch.

But what's fascinating is watching Bednarik first go toward the ball, which the Eagles recovered behind the play. Zimmerman's photo was taken only AFTER Bednarik turned back to Gifford, looking back toward the Eagles' side of the ball, and he was celebrating the fumble recovery that sealed the Eagles' win.

Bednarik's second most-famous tackle came in the NFL championship game that year, when he stopped Jim Taylor on another pass play out of the backfield, Taylor had broken one tackle and slipped another, but Bednarik actually had some help with the stop, at the seven yard line, and with holding Taylor down until time had expired. But his quote remains famous: 'You can get up now, Jim, this game's over'. That game was the only playoff match Vince Lombardi ever lost.

Bednarik made the NFL's all-decade team for the 1950s as a center. He didn't make the 75th anniversary team, although he probably should've got some recognition for being a two way player. Looking at film, seeing his athleticism down-field and his instincts at the line of scrimmage, I suspect linebacker may have been his better position. But during his career, his only real competition as the NFL's best center was Jim Ringo (Jim Otto in the Sixties AFL has now passed both) or maybe Chicago's Mike Pyle. At middle linebacker you could choose from the Bears' Bill George and Dick Butkus, the Lions' Joe Schmidt, the Packers' Ray Nitschke, or the Giants' Sam Huff.

I wrote Bednarik's obituary for the Daily Telegraph, but that was designed for people who didn't know anything about football, but the details of his life are worth repeating. He was the son of Slovak immigrants, his father worked at the hearth (or 'heart', as Bednarik pronounced it) in a steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Chuck didn't start speaking English until he went to school, and became a football star at Bethlehem's Liberty High. But with World War II raging, he enlisted before graduation (his mother collected his diploma) and at the age of 18 found himself flying as the waist gunner in a B-24 Liberator. He flew 30 missions, and when he came back after the war his plans had changed. He'd intended to get a job at the mill to help his father; now the GI Bill sent him to the University of Pennsylvania, where he became a three-time All-American and finished third in the 1948 Heisman Trophy voting, playing center and linebacker. He was drafted first overall in 1949 by the Eagles, which meant he didn't even have to change stadiums; the Eagles played at Penn's Franklin Field.

The Eagles were the defending NFL champions, having won the famed 'Snow Bowl' 7-0 on Steve Van Buren's touchdown in 1948. That they had the first pick in the draft was the result of the NFL's 'lottery', which was soon discontinued. Bednarik moved right into the starting lineup, and the Eagles won the NFL title again in 1949. Through the Fifties, however, the Eagles were a team in decline. That changed when Buck Shaw arrived to coach in 1958, and in 1960 traded for quarterback Norm Van Brocklin from the Rams.

His nickname reflected his hardness, but came because he was, literally, an industrial concrete salesman. He worked not only in the off-season but in season after the day's practice was over. After all, he had five daughters to support, and in those days even an NFL star's salary couldn't do it. And he didn't live large; all his life was spent between Bethlehem and Philly. And he paid the price: look at his snapping hand in that photo with another guy he tackled often, Jim Brown.

He retired after the 1962 season, aged 37, still being forced by circumstance to go both ways. Maxie Baughan, who was drafted to be his replacement at linebacker, and was a great one, called Chuck the best he'd ever seen. Bednarik headed the state athletic commission, overseeing boxing and wrestling, but he also became one of football's most outspoken and entertaining curmudgeons. He complained about overpaid players and a soft game, and laughed out loud when reporters tried to compare Deion Sanders' occasional forays as a wide receiver to his two-way play. 'He couldn't tackle my wife,' Concrete Charlie laughed. He was a popular speaker, and once, at a charity roast of Frank Gifford, he arranged to have the lights shut off as he took the dias. When the lights came back on after a minute, he told the audience 'now you know how Gifford felt when I hit him.'

His family said he was suffering Alzheimers when he died, aged 85, and attributed that to his football career. Jim Brown called him 'a true gladiator'. For me, Chuck Bednarik symbolises better than almost anyone what football was about when I was young, and wanted to play. It was something you did on your way to being a man. Being a man was defined differently in those days, and in some ways that's for the better now, but Chuck Bednarik's passing reminds me that in many ways it's not, and being a man like Chuck was not a bad aspiration.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A SHORT MUSING ON 17 MARCH

So who was the greatest British novelist of the 20th century? Most of the millennial critics leaned toward James Joyce, which would be alright with me. The greatest poet? Less agreement there, but WB Yeats, who would be my choice, got some traction (the American TS Eliot got a bit more). If you were talking about the second half of the century, Seamus Heaney might get my shout out. The greatest playwright? More competition here, but my vote still goes to Samuel Beckett, who gets extra credit for his prose. George Bernard Shaw would top some lists.

My point being of course that all those writers, who are naturally assumed to be British (if not English) are actually Irish, and where would we be without them today? Happy St Patrick's Day.

Monday, 9 March 2015

SAM SIMON: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Sam Simon is online at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper Wednesday; I got the call too late this evening to make tomorrow's paper. It's pretty much as written, which is nice because it was a rush job on what was going to be a busy evening with Nate, his dinner, his algebra, and a movie. Only the movie was lost.

Simon is a fascinating figure; a polyglot whose talents were fueled by the fortune he made from the Simpsons after he left the show. None of his comedy work, with Carlin, Carey, Stern or whomever, matched that. But I suspect the negotiator who got that deal, and who went head to head with Don King (who then asked him and his lawyers to sign blank sheets of paper onto which King would have 'his people' copy the deal they'd agreed!) was a hell of a poker player. Apparently he once beat his ex-wife Jennifer Tilley head to head in one of their poker tourneys. That must've been some marriage.

I would have liked to write a small essay on the melding of Simon's sensibility with Matt Groening's (that's them flanking James Brooks in the photo above). I hint at the importance of that in the piece, but if you read Life In Hell throughout the Eighties, you can see the subtle way in which Groening's world view remains, and the way Simon hung on to it even as he The Simpson's domain outside the personal.

It's admirable how Simon, having been a generous donor, decided to use his fortune once he knew he was dying. He had no children, but he leaves behind others of his family, and of course, the Simpsons.




Monday, 2 March 2015

PHILIP LEVINE: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Philip Levine is online at the Guardian today, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. I've liked Levine every since my first encounter with Not This Pig back in 1968 or 69. I didn't want to turn the obit into a literary exegesis, but I was trying to figure out just how to place Levine in modern poetry, and it was not an easy thing to do. In the end I liked the link to the confessional poets -- but his poetry was not about the inner conflicts of the creative soul but the outer stresses of the man at work, and that is how it reads: like a man at work. I thought of comparisons to Carl Rakosi or George Oppen, but with less compression of everyday speech: the critics who accused his verse of artlessness were almost right, what they missed was the same thing that makes Philip Roth's prose so effective, and it is an ability to draw the reader into the rhythm's of the writer's working out what it is he needs to say. Levine did this with the grace of a carpenter hammering home the frame of a house, and the finished product was the kind of structure we could feel was a familiar home...