On Grady Chambers's North American Stadiums

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North American Stadiums, Grady Chambers
112 pp. Milkweed Editions, 2018.

Grady Chambers’s debut collection, the first recipient of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and selected for publication by Henri Cole, is primarily concerned with nostalgia for an American masculinity that in 2018 feels both irretrievably lost and—to this reader—perhaps a dangerous relic of our past. The first poem in the book, “Explaining the Resurrection in Simple Words,” sets up nostalgia’s spiritualized arrival, placing us at a baseball diamond for an evening game, for a moment of pure Americana. From there, the poems gather memories in each of the four sections.

            Time and place take center stage in this collection. “Syracuse, October” opens the first section with the surprising charm of this erasure: “Fuck the hot autumns of Charleston, fuck handsome / Alabama, fuck the Deep South alcoholics…” The speaker of this poem drives north toward the titular city. Driving will be a key action in many of the poems in the collection, continuing in the next poem, “The Life,” which begins in a Chevy with the words “So I drove.” The cities are primarily Midwestern ones, titans of industry like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh, and these poems seem to yearn for that lost majesty when manufacturing jobs were a man’s path to an honest life, a home, a family, and when professional sports were his reliable escape from its doldrums. Many poems situate themselves in a day of the week (“Sunday Morning,”), a month (“Jackknife”), a season (“A Summer,” “Memorial Day,” “The Syracuse Poem”), or even a year (“Dispatch: Canal Zone,” “Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966”), or the poems recall a specific moment in the speakers’ past (“Another Beauty I Remember,” Thousand Islands,” “Far Rockaway,” “Pin”). The poems’ obsession with time (and timeliness) saturates the collection with a sepia tone—an idealized America that feels primarily concerned with mourning what now feels like the roots of toxic masculinity.

            This lost and revered masculinity lurks in the shadows of this collection. It appears in the skyline of cities, where “the smokestacks of US Steel / rose like an organ in a church” (“Another Beauty I Remember”). The poem continues:

I keep taking the long road back
to that summer because the image won’t leave me:
weekend evenings, gin and driving south, smoke
blasting from the factory stacks,
the men glancing up at the flash of our passing.
We were going to spend all night drinking gin
on an Indiana beach. Dust had settled
like fragments of a hand grenade, like silver wings
across the backs of men. We were going to tell each other
what was beautiful.

There’s something simple and pure and deeply rural about this memory—yet the speaker’s disclosure that he and his friends could discuss beauty after getting drunk on gin, beatifying the industrial workers from the factory along way, feels like an acknowledgement that even within this sacred masculinity, something is wrong, impaired, undeveloped.

As much as the speakers in the poems yearn for an emotional connection to other men (and a few women), this desire also manifests at times as physical violence between men. “A man passed me on the street / saying, Something in your face / makes me want to hurt you.” (“Blue Handgun”). Later in this poem, a man beaten, perhaps by the speaker’s father, crawls across their lawn toward a waiting car. Though the speaker isn’t sure why the man has been hurt, the image scars him, and for weeks after he views his father as “a tower,” and sees men outside the house who terrify him. “Jackknife,” exploring the speaker’s childhood friendship with a boy named Jacob, says, “Twenty-eight years / and what have I given you? / A knee to the eye. / A throat-hold / on a schoolyard court / our knees gashed by asphalt. / So violence, / Jacob, but tenderness / too…”

The poet’s technique is sharp and finely honed in many of these poems. Chambers uses an evocative structure where he turns nouns into adjectives in front of other nouns: “booted men,” fallen leaves are “streeted leaves,” and the drone-fired missiles of the Iraq war are “joysticked.” Perhaps the most beautiful moment in the collection occurs in “Salt Lake,” when “Noon turned everything white— / heat— / and empty— / shadows walked back / inside their trees.” The book has an overall reverence for the natural world that sometimes feels at odds with its praise of the industrialized society, and the natural moments often feel the most tender and lyric. Chambers’s work, though, overall, has a narrative impulse. Some poems, especially the longer pieces, strive almost to be short stories of line breaks and metaphor. In these, the speaker’s voices are strong, almost domineering, while the spare works such as “Salt Lake” and “Picasso in Milwaukee” actually feel the most confident.

The collection coheres around a simple declaration found in “A Story about the Moon”: “I think about that sometimes / happenstance leading to a life.” Each of the poems in this debut open a window to the past to present there a lost place or relationship, or an event otherwise unremarkable but for its remembrance by the speaker—that happenstance, the coincidence of a spark in the present moment leading us down the wick to its payload in the past.

Charles Jensen