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sort of gone

15 september 2008

Sarah Freligh's Sort of Gone is a verse novel in the form of a lyric sequence. It's an uncommon formal genre, but one that is gaining traction in American poetry, where it's been done recently for adults by A. Van Jordan in M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A and for younger readers by Karen Hesse in the Newbery Medalist Out of the Dust. It's even been done in baseball fiction, again for a young audience, by Ron Koertge in Shakespeare Bats Cleanup. Freligh does it for adults, with remarkable energy and craft, in Sort of Gone.

The plot of Sort of Gone is archetypal. Pitching phenom from a working-class family, driven by a hard-bitten, hard-drinking father, makes good in the major leagues. Life at the top looks like for ever, but age catches up to Al Stepansky, and he falls much faster than he rose, and is left "quenching the past replaying / on tape in his living room" the highlights of his pro career (85).

Probably no plot element in Sort of Gone but that has appeared in many other baseball books and films: the father echoes Karl Malden in Fear Strikes Out, the progress of the pitcher's career tracks Henry Wiggen's in Mark Harris's series of novels, the obscene humor and angst of the clubhouse is familiar from Ball Four and its many avatars, and one connecting thread in the lyric sequence, tracing the arc of Al's one major-league no-hitter, recalls Michael Shaara's For Love of the Game.

If originality were all, there would not be much to write home about here, but originality is so not what good baseball fictions are made of. Within the archetypal plot, Freligh displays great precision of craft and exceptional powers of observation.

It's a commonplace that baseball stories are better in proportion to the amount of time they spend away from the diamond, chronicling the surrounding culture. In Sort of Gone, Freligh gives us a minutely observed, convincing working-class Buffalo of the postwar era. The collection seems to burst with energy with the poem "Chin Music" (20), where our hero Al's dissolute father knocks off a half-hearted game of catch to go soak himself in beer and swivel his hips for the other barflies la Elvis. "Night Game" (21) follows, where Al drowns the noise of a roaring fight between his parents by listening to a staticky Mel Allen convey the exploits of Mickey Mantle. But this life is not entirely dysfunctional. Instead it seems caught in an equilibrium of gender battles and consumer anodynes. Not long after the flaming row of "Night Game," Al's mom sits in the middle of "Tupperware Party" (26-27), constructing symbolic revenge on her worthless man by burping little plastic tubs and sealing off bits of her life therein. Anyone who came from working-class urban Catholic roots in the last century knows the world. The wonder is not so much that people survived it, as that its powerful sustaining balances ever collapsed. And for all its uglinesses, do we perhaps wish that that world, with its certainties and its gusto, weren't so completely vanished?

Most of the poems in Sort of Gone are free verse, though often with carefully modulated line lengths and stanza shapes. Right in the center, though, are two exercises in academic forms: a sestina ("Groupie," 35-36) and a sonnet ("Foreign Affairs," 37). They are deftly turned. "Groupie" in particular embodies a hell-raising energy that the normally languid sestina form is usually immune to. "Foreign Affairs," the sonnet, uses inexact rhyme in the service of bitter irony: the sonnet form, with its centuries of associations with the marriage of true minds, here takes on the blithe insincerities involved in the meeting of two false bodies.

Finally, I will give a shout-out to one of the volume's most daring and successful pieces, "Al in the Twilight Zone" (74). There's not much baseball in the poem; rather, the veteran Al, at his wits' end over the pressure of his profession and his betrayal by his own body, rehearses the famous waking nightmare experienced by William Shatner in the classic TV episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." Anyone mid-life, mid-career, mid-accomplishments, can relate to both Shatner and Stepansky. Sometimes you aren't dreaming; sometimes there is a little gnawing demon on the wing.

Freligh, Sarah. Sort of Gone. Cincinnati: Turning Point, 2008.