"The hardest game we'd ever played": baseball as metaphor in four Vietnam war poems.
blind corners leading to dead ends, short horizons always changing ... A feeling of marching through a great maze ... A sense of entrapment mixed with mystery ... They did not have targets. They did not have a cause. They did not know if it was a war of ideology or economics or hegemony or spite. On a given day, they did not know where they were ... or how being there might influence larger outcomes. They did not know the names of most villages ... They did not know how to feel when they saw villages burning. Revenge? Loss? Peace of mind or anguish? ... They did not know good from evil. (1)
Consequently, it seems plausible that the outpouring of veteran writing results from a compulsion to record or re-present an indelible experience, but also from the need to seek terms and contexts for relating that experience to or against the broader experience of culture and identity. The writing serves to register the "sense of entrapment" in meaninglessness that O'Brien describes but also to consider, paradoxically, what that meaninglessness means.
Remarkably for so anti-literary a war, the most prolific genre among veteran writing is poetry. There is a certain logic in this, for the war had no plot or narrative, but consisted largely of sudden moments among small groups of people, and the remoteness of the war, as well as the military's practice of individual rather than unit rotations, emphasized a sense of anomie that lends itself to the use of a lyric speaker. It is in poetry, the most figurative and allusive of genres, that the search for the war's context is most visible, and in some examples of poetry that I will consider here.
The tradition of modern war poetry, as established by the poets of the World Wars, is to use a mythopoeic approach that seeks to elevate and integrate experience within the terms of high culture. This is evidenced in two of the most famous World War poems, Wilfred Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est," and Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Owen's use of similes, likening exhausted and burdened soldiers to beggars, hags, drunks, and finally, the gassing victim's face to that of a "devil's sick of sin," as well as the use of the Horatian tag, places the incidents of the poem within an English allegorical as well as a Classical literary tradition. (2) Similarly, Jarrell, in describing the ball gunner as a fetus born from the "dream of life" into the "nightmare" of death from within the belly of "the State," makes use of traditional "high" poetic tropes that, despite the contrast of the brutal end of being "washed ... out of the turret with a hose," serve to elevate the poem to the mythic and empyrean. (3)
For the soldier-poets of Vietnam, such an approach proves unconvincing or unavailable for the war's sordid banalities and absurdities. At any rate, it is seldom used, and where it is used, it tends to be offered only to be rejected. For example, Bruce Weigl's poem, "Song of Napalm," attempts to offer an apotheosis of a burning girl:
I try to imagine she runs down the road and wings beat inside her until she rises above the stinking jungle and her pain eases ... (4)
This consolation subsequently fails:
But the lie swings back again. The lie works only as long as it takes to speak and the girl runs only as far as the napalm allows (ibid).
Certainly, also, many of the poets are aware of the war as a perversion of American myths of redemptive, manifest destiny. However, in the poetry, this awareness leads most often to polemics that prove facile and unsatisfying in their reduction of the war's ambivalence and ambiguity to simple terms of good and evil. High culture, whether from the classic Western tradition or American national tradition, simply does not seem to suit a war in which a common expression was "it don't mean nothin'," napalm victims were referred to as "crispy critters," and a transport plane converted to a gunship was called "Puff the Magic Dragon."
As these terms indicate, the context best suited for the American experience of Vietnam is that of vernacular, popular culture, and it is to this that many soldier-poems turn in seeking to place the war. However, as suggested by the ghoulish irony of euphemisms drawn from a breakfast cereal and children's song, references to popular culture in the poetry--mainly Hollywood films and other products of mass consumer culture--tend to descry its mercenary artificiality, glibness and hypocrisy. Again, polemic tends to overtake, reduce and obscure the tragedy of the war. In tragedy, if one recalls Aristotle's definition, there is an element of innocence or genuineness that suffers as a result of flaws and circumstance. Few of the Vietnam War poets have been able to preserve that dimension of genuine and tragic American innocence.
Recent poems by Dale Ritterbusch, however, represent a significant achievement in the poetry of the war. In these, Ritterbusch employs a setting for representation of the war experience and its effects that speaks to and from a popular American context that is not burdened with cynicism, but rather embodies what one might call an essential "Americanness," and ultimately Humanness, in its most free and innocent form--in sport, and specifically, the sport of baseball.
The most useful perspective for appreciating Ritterbusch's accomplishment is provided by the late Bart Giamatti in his book, Take Time for Paradise: Americans and their Games. There, Giamatti considers sport to provide a structure for the representation or modeling of experience. Sport, he writes, consists of
the constant dialectic of restraint and release, the repeated interplay of energy and order, of improvisation and obligation, of strategy and tactic, all neatness denied and ambiguity affirmed by the incredible power of the random, by accident or luck, by vagaries of weather, by mental lapses or physical failure, by flaw in field or equipment, by laws of physics that operate on round or oblong objects in their own way, by error in all its lurking multiplicity. (5)
According to Giamatti, these characteristics of sport are nowhere more evident than in baseball, where,
[o]rganized by the metric of the game, by the prosody of the play, is all the random, unpredictable, explosive energy of playing, crisscrossing the precise shapes in lines and curves, bounces and wild hops and parabolas and slashing arcs ... [T]here is a violence in the game at variance with its formal patterns, a hunger for speed at variance with its leisurely pace, a potential for irrational randomness at variance with its geometric shapes. (89-90)
In baseball, Giamatti continues, "[t]he random events, the variety of incidents, the different ways various personalities react to pressure, the passion poured into the quest to win" occur within and against the "cool geometry" of the game (94).
Thus, sport, and especially baseball, models experience as a field where coherence contends with disruption, and where the self confronts and aspires to transcend what Giamatti calls the "snake of error in our lives" (34) to achieve a moment of complete integration. Furthermore, what makes sport a particular province of the innocent or genuine is that, popularly, it is an activity entered freely, without the coercion or burden of necessity that attends the quotidian life of work and what Giamatti calls its "daily negotiation with death" (22). Rather, sport is a garden of human aspiration toward individual and communal fulfillment.
Baseball's communal and particularly American aspect--in Giamatti's term, its "creedlike quality" (24)--in its narrative of what Giamatti describes as "an epic of exile and return," of "separation, loss, and the hope for reunion" (95). This, writes Giamatti, is our "national story, the tale America tells the world" (83), and the "vast communal poem ... of homecoming that America sings to itself" (95). In its Romance of a quest from and for "home," baseball "sends its players out in order to return again ... to accomplish great things in a dangerous world" (104). As Giamatti comments:
Virtually innumerable are the dangers, the faces of failure one can meet if one is fortunate enough even to leave home. Most efforts fail. Failure to achieve the first leg of the voyage is extremely likely. In no game of ours is failure so omnipresent ... The young batter who would light out from home, so as to return bearing fame and the spoils of success, is most often simply out. (94)
Ritterbusch's unique achievement has been to employ baseball--as memories of boyhood, meditations on playing, as an image of a national idyll, and through quotes from the game's legends--to serve as both metaphor and contrast for the experience of Vietnam. Like Giamatti, Ritterbuscb discerns in the game an ideal of innocence and coherence, commitment and sacrifice, and an allegory of departure and return. He uses these qualities to great effect to represent the war's losses, disruptions, alienation and, finally, to comment upon the ineluctable gap between the game as metaphor or simulacrum and the brute reality of war's negotiation with death. The significance of this approach is to give form to the human experience of a war marked by its shapelessness and self-enclosed inaccessibility, its imperviousness to any terms not local to itself. And indeed, this resistance constrains a great number of Vietnam soldier-poems to being fragments of blank documentary. Moreover, and most importantly, the use of baseball serves in the poems to bring the war home to the afternoon backyards, sandlots, and recreation room TVs, and to the lore and enthusiasms of the domestic and popular imagination. Hence, Ritterbusch's poems present the war not as a hermetic fragment or as an abstracted and allusive figure of high myth, nor as a brandished emblem in a political screed, but as a presence in the common and familiar fabric of American consciousness.
The poem, "Behind the Plate," describes the kind of kid always picked to play catcher as a means of representing the type, and the fate, of many of those who were sent to Vietnam--unassuming stalwarts who became, in grim military slang, bullet catchers--to play a game, as Giamatti observed, in which "failure is omnipresent" and many are "simply out." The poem begins:
Always the dumbest and fattest kid played catcher--so slow to first he was an easy out you had to be dumb, we thought to play that position--always the chance of being hit with a foul tip stinging face, hands, ankles no matter how much protection, and we didn't have much. (6)
Yet, the poem continues,
"we were lucky to have someone / who wanted to catch": and when the ball hit his knee with a hard crack, he never complained. Always he would walk it off, rubbing the sweat off his brow with his sleeve. It was just part of the game, like blocking the plate or taking one for the team. (ibid.)
Ultimately, in Ritterbusch's adept elision, the kid with no protection succumbs to errant chance and indeed takes one for the team:
And because he was dumb and slow He worked for a year after high school, Got married, was drafted and sent to Asia To play in the big leagues--a utility player, One of the boonie rats sent to catch The hardest game we'd ever played. (ibid.)
There, finally, "just like always he got hit, / the sting so sharp, so deep, / he wouldn't even try to walk it off" (ibid). And thus it was with so many who were sent, ostensibly, to protect home.
In one of Ritterbusch's strongest baseball poems, "The Outfield Coming Home," (7) he considers, through the guise of an anonymous player, the personal and permanent dislocation that the war wrought upon a sense of coherence between the self and the world. It begins:
No place, no position ever suited a man more than the outfield suited him.
The player, through "years of study" of the "game's movement," could move
... even before the pitch was hit to the place the ball would be and his long strides took him to that point of intersection where the ball sunk deep into the pocket with the sound and feel that everything was right no matter what else there was in the world[.]
However, in a reference that conflates terms from the war and the game, the player returns from a departure to find that nothing is right again:
In less than two years an early out brought him back to the game where he noted the uneven field for the first time, the ground giving way as he ran back, his knee giving out in a slight depression, breaking his stride, and when the ball nicked the web of his glove and bounced for extra bases, he felt the awkwardness of running it down, throwing off line with a hurried throw[.]
With a phrase that is an unmistakable marker of Vietnam, the player tries to shrug off a now total and inescapable state of error, in which "Whatever else he did caromed at crazy angles ] or skittered beyond reach of his glove," by telling himself "it don't mean nothin'." Yet the profound paradox of that double negative is that the meaninglessness of "it" is finally what it means, and the player is finally left, as the poem says, "just so":
... whatever he had learned over all those years, so sure and straight, was uneven like the ground he played on, the air shimmering above the diamond, the light playing tricks and that one sure thing lost in the sun.
The player can never come home, and the war, instantiating what Giamatti called the "snake of error," permanently disrupts the sure geometry of the diamond.
In the poem, "World Series, 1968, Southeast Asia," Ritterbusch considers the timeless, ritual and renewable coherence of the game, seen as a distant and flickering image of America from the present of the war. In the poem, the speaker is watching a game on a TV in a bar in Vietnam before returning to the States. The poem opens with an ironic inversion of the Vietnam catchphrase. Applied to the game, it signals at once an idyllic quality, an analogy to the war, and finally the game's remote irrelevance:
On the other side of the world it don't mean nothin'-the slow tedium of the pitcher holding the ball in both hands rubbing it as if it were a talisman that could save his life, and if the charm didn't work to lose it, just another game lost in the box scores, a minor loss buried in history; and the batter tries to stay alive waiting for that one pitch knowing there's another one out there that has his number on it. (8)
In the game, even as it figures and borrows terms from what Giamatti called the "negotiation with death," losses don't really matter for there is always another game and another pitch.
The speaker next turns to consider how what one might call the triteness of the game is ironically similar to the casual and statistical indifference of the war:
I turn away from the TV, order another scotch and soda, And losing it all doesn't matter as the game dies like the loss of a friend one has no time to mourn and that so easy anyway in a game where deaths are recorded like outs and neither the dead nor the living keep score. (ibid.)
However, the irony of that similarity underscores a profound and wrenching difference. If the game is, finally, just a game that "don't mean nothin'," the same meaninglessness, invoked as a protection from a war that is conducted like a game, ultimately does not protect but opens an abyss of dismay. The double negative continually compounds and confounds it means nothing; it doesn't mean nothing. At the center of this aporia is a brutal actuality that both calls for and denies meaning, producing an irreparable and insistent disruption. Compared to this, the image of baseball offers an impossible idyll of coherence. The dream of baseball, where "[o]n the playground ... / ... watching the beautiful arc, / the beautiful white of the ball / against the beautiful blue of a cloudless summer" a fielder "doesn't move a step" as the ball "slams into his glove with the sound and feel / that everything makes sense" is "no dream for a soldier" (ibid).
The poem then offers an image that conflates baseball and America itself to comment on the impossibility of returning home, since to do so involves subscribing to a certainty that is now impossibly remote in its complacency and neglect of the brutal insistence of error:
On the long flight back fields show certainly through the clouds, the bases white as always, outfields still green but so far away they're not worth coming home to, not worth what it takes to get back. (ibid.)
The poem concludes that the real "game one has to play" is "to know this before returning," that a return to prior certainty is impossible, and that the challenges one confronts are finally not on the diamond, but in the implacable and final reality of the negotiation with death. This is "the hard won price of admission, / the accords one can never live up to" (ibid). As for the dream of baseball,
It could have been Gibson on the mound ... could have been Cash or Kaline who stepped out of the batter's box whatever, it doesn't matter, the game slowed past all time that matters in this world. (ibid.)
The timeless national idyll of coherence, transcendence, renewal and return, even with its heroes, ultimately means nothing to a world where time matters.
Ritterbusch drives a final nail in the baseball metaphor in caustically considering a quote from Ty Cobb in the poem, "Something Like A War":
Ty Cobb said baseball is something Like a war, as if coming in with your spikes Sharpened and high were the equivalent Of flesh shredded by a fragmentation grenade or a booby trapped 105 round. (9)
Cobb, remembered for his on-field viciousness and ruthless determination in the game, is guilty, according to Ritterbusch, of naive and invidious rhetoric. Its type, the terminology of war, is especially common in the language of sports. To those who have been to war, however, such a comparison appalls. Ritterbusch responds, "But the metaphor / doesn't hold" (ibid), and after giving an example of mayhem on the base path comments that such, to soldiers, "wouldn't be even a mild skirmish between two friends / drunk on a Saturday night and looking for trouble" (ibid). The trouble is that baseball is a game, with artificial stakes. If, as discussed previously, the game serves as a model of experience, it is finally only a model, a simulation. Moreover, part of that game's or any games' abiding appeal, and its abiding fiction, is its promise of hope, that there is always another game, another season. Sports, thus, offer immortality and the constant prospect of attainable victory. War, however, is the definition of mortality, in all the finality of unredeemable and unrecoverable loss. We are preached the lessons of sports when young, when we know we will live forever--lessons of perseverance, of looking beyond immediate failure, of the endless opportunity to become better, to get it right the next time. In war, to turn the baseball comparison the other way and borrow again Giamatti's phrase, so many are simply and finally out. Thus, the poem concludes:
Any good player could always pick himself up, dust his uniform off, and play the next day-- baseball is nothing like a war. (ibid)
The metaphor of baseball provides a familiar structure for representing the American experience of the Vietnam War as an experience endlessly and irrevocably disruptive of our need for a cool and contained geometry of meaning and of the confidence to carry our innocent and perhaps oversimplified aspirations into a dangerous world and then return successfully to the same, certain home we had left. As that war represents an uncomfortable and, therefore, often unacknowledged benchmark in contemporary American consciousness, so the soldier-poetry of the war, in frankly registering the dilemma of that consciousness, deserves a place in the American canon, which, to date, it has not been accorded by the arbiters of literary propriety. If future readers and students are to look for later companions to Wilfred Owen and Randall Jarrell in the literary legacy of this century's killing fields and the snake of error they have loosed in our playgrounds, they should look to the poems of Dale Ritterbusch.
(1.) Quoted in John Hellman. American Myth and the Legacy of Vietnam. (New York: Columbia UP, 1986) 164.
(2.) Wilfred Owen. "Dulce Et Decorum Est." The Oxford Book of War Poetry 1984, Ed. Jon Stallworthy (New York: Oxford UP, 1987) 188-9.
(3.) Randall Jarrell. "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." The Oxford Book of War Poetry, 1984. Ed. Jon Stallworthy (New York: Oxford UP, 1987) 227.
(4.) Bruce Weigl. Song of Napalm. (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1988) 34.
(5.) A. Bartlett Giamatti. Take Time for Paradise: Americans and their Games. (New York: Summit, 1989) 33-4. Further references will be cited parenthetically in the text.
(6.) Dale Ritterbusch. "Behind the Plate." WLA, War, Literature and the Arts, an International Journal of the Humanities (10, 1999) 60.
(7.) Dale Ritterbusch. "The Outfield Coming Home." The Vietnam War Generation Journal. (1, 1 April 2001) 103.
(8.) Dale Ritterbusch. "World Series, 1968, Southeast Asia." WLA (10, 1999) 54-56.
(9.) Dale Ritterbusch. "Something Like A War." WLA (10, 1998) 57.
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|Publication:||Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
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