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NINE: A Journal of Baseball History & Culture Reviews Stealing Home

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Filed under: Reviews

Dwayne Brenna. Stealing Home: Baseball Poems.

James J. Donahue

Known professionally for his work on stage, television, and cinema, Dwayne

Brenna should— with this collection of poems celebrating the great American

pastime— also now be known as a poet and baseball enthusiast. For with this

collection of poems, Brenna demonstrates both his deep love and appreciation

for the game as well as a (largely) nuanced ear for language.

Brenna’s background in acting likely provided him with one of the strengths

of this collection, namely an ability to write from multiple personae. Although

some of these poems, set as they are in Saskatchewan, are likely drawn from

personal experience (if not directly biographical), other poems speak with a

more universal voice, one that allows the reader to imagine himself both in

the poem as well as in the game. For anyone who has ridden the pine, for

instance, “Chatter” will bring back warm memories of encouraging one’s team

and trying to rattle your opponents. In fact, all of the poems in section three

(“Hard Ball”) work to bring the game to life; those who have played will be

able to relate, and those who have not are given a keen insight into some of

the game’s subtle nuances. Poems like “Curve Ball” and “Split Finger,” to note

but two examples, operate simultaneously as introductions to the uninitiated

to “the curve’s impossibility” and the pitch that “no one hits,” as well as familiar

reminders to players who have stood in the batter’s box. However, it’s in

poems like “Knuckleball” that Brenna demonstrates his facilities as a poet;

spacing his stanzas so that they “dance like a Broadway chorus girl,” Brenna’s

poem mimics the frustrating beauty of this pitch.

In addition to his wonderful work exploring the details of the game, Brenna’s

collection also taps into baseball’s important work as a cultural marker, a

bridge between generations, and the bonds we share with others though our

participation (particularly the father/son bond, a common trope in various

baseball books and movies). “Cheats,” for instance, illuminates a lesson that

fathers must give their sons about growing up: learning “to cheat when I was

twelve,” the speaker’s father puts his arm around his son’s shoulders and sagely

tells him, “The umpire calls the game, not you.” In a similar vein, “WinnWell”

is a short meditation on loss, and a reminder of the various ways we remember

our fathers through the game of baseball: “When fathers die, you lose /

a little more of them each day. / Now I’ve lost the smell of leather / and the

oil he used, / his hand print in the glove.” And in poems such as “Funeral”

(the finest of the collection, in this reviewer’s estimation), Brenna presents

lyric moments of intimacy woven together with details drawn from a lifetime

pent playing the game: mourning the loss of a thirty- year coach and umpire

(“Steeee! he growled and Baaaawwrr! and sometimes Faauooooh!”), the coffin

bearers “hoist him on their shoulders like they never did, / his casket

seeming lighter than he was.”

Brenna also demonstrates that the game is played by people, and not just

living collections of statistics and probabilities, as “We are not numbers or

geometry; / the essence of our struggle / doesn’t square,” from “Stats and the

Great Players,” reminds the reader. Similarly, though we may all remember

the giants of the game, Brenna reminds us of the many who have become little

more than footnotes to those stars: the aptly- titled “Footnote” asks “what

of poor old Wally Pipp?,” a player whose claim to fame is as “a footnote / in

the legend of another man.” “There were no movies made about his life,” and

he will forever be remembered as the man who wasn’t Lou Gehrig. Nor, as

other poems point out, are the uniformed players the only participants in this

sport: “Scully” is a touching ode to one of the finest play- by- play announcers

in professional sports, and readers who have heard him call a game will likely

be incapable of reading “Wilson makes the throw / and pulls Clark / down the

right field line” in any voice other than Vin Scully’s.

Although there are a few moments of clumsy writing— “Fan” speaks of a

woman who “rode me like a borrowed donkey” and “Didn’t Look That Awkward”

makes an awkward reference to “a devil / from the seventh ring of Hell”

(why would an injured pitcher be one of those doing the punishing against

sinners who have committed violence?)— these few moments are far outnumbered

by the moments of quiet beauty, touching memory, and keen insight

into the game, all of which have been provided by a poet who so clearly loves a

game he devoted many years of his life to playing. (Brenna played for numerous

teams, and at one point held “the Saskatoon Senior Men’s League record

for most innings pitched in a single season.”) In all, this collection is bound

to be enjoyed by those who love the game (and want to bask in the comfort

of memory) as well as those who are new to the game (and would appreciate

a skilled writer’s account). And much like a good game, this collection is well

worth revisiting.


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