Contributor’s Marginalia: Noah Kucij on “Outfielder” by Matt Sumpter
Poets. You can’t take us anywhere. Whether we’re in the waiting room, in a station of the metro or a supermarket in California, we’re always doing more than just waiting, commuting or shopping. We’re poking at the melons of every experience, transforming the faces around us into fresh images, discovering that we exist and/or that we will one day cease to. It’s no fun for anyone else, and while we are allowed to have jobs and families and ovens, we’re rarely put in charge of the department or entrusted with cooking a turkey. “Outsider” is a bit overwrought for what we are. “Outfielder” is closer to right. Matt Sumpter has given us both a very good baseball poem and a mascot for our motley team.
I like how Sumpter establishes his speaker as half-in/half-out, a participant on the margins. Being in the outfield helps – it’s arguably the loneliest, the most removed position in team sports. The admission that “I barely made the team” is further fodder. And then there’s the poem’s fixation on baseball’s marginalia. Even to its practitioners, the game is as much about unwritten rules and unathletic customs as it is about balls and strikes. There’s a waiting well of poeticisms that never seem to get old; even the most tongue-tied and literal among us can speak with ease of a frozen rope, some chin music or a runner in a pickle. Sumpter eschews these easy morsels, but vividly evokes the trappings just beyond the diamond nevertheless: “hard-case chatter” and “dip” in the dugout, women “like cinders” in the stands. The trivial and the essential are all mixed up. Baseball imitates life once again.
And then, into this nicely drawn scene, emerges a bit of novelty: a crow that has met its end in the batting-cage netting. The speaker jumps at the chance to “put it down” because it gives him a role, albeit an eccentric one. Plus, dead animals are truffles for poets. We can’t keep our noses out of them. It’s while the speaker presides over this death that the poem reaches new lyrical altitudes. We get this:
His wingtips reached
for the shadows they were made from.
At dusk, the ball will disappear that way,
becoming movement, sound, as we cut
our names in dirt with metal cleats,
believing fields of onion grass are endless.
How familiar, this swath of revelry and revelation that extends from a single literal moment outward into space. How much like so many of my own very pleasant, public space-outs. Sumpter shows his speaker doing very poet-y things, transforming an everyday encounter which “no one talks / about” into measured doses of incantation and dreaminess. Making the whole scene and moment – summer night, amateur baseball, dead bird – into everything it can be with the help of a little magical thinking.
Then, in counterpoint to all this lush lyricism, the poem ends with a sobering line-drive: “A teammate called: / It is what it is. Forget that shit.” I like the poem most of all for this final balancing act, in which its very poetry-ness meets the blunt prose of the dugout. Those of us who get off on complexity and transformative thinking should hate that ubiquitous phrase, It is what it is, but somehow it often seems just the ticket, just the saltine for the queasiness of life. Here, I don’t think we’re meant to swallow it whole – the poet is meant to keep playing shaman and eulogist as well as right fielder – but it is a nice reminder to look alive out there, that the count is full and the runners will be going.
Noah Kucij’s poems and essays have appeared in Cortland Review, Slow Trains, LOST, and in two collections from Toadlily Press. He teaches at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY. His poem, “The Belt,” appears with Matt Sumpter’s “Outfielder” in 32 Poems 10.2.