Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Al Purdy's Hockey Players

photo © Mark Butkus 2014
The season is upon us. The hockey season!

What they worry about most is injuries
    broken arms and legs and
fractured skulls opening so doctors
can see such bloody beautiful things almost
not quite happening in the bone rooms
        as they happen outside
And the referee?
        He’s right there on the ice
not out of sight among the roaring blue gods
of a game played for passionate stockbrokers
children wearing business suits
and a nation of television agnostics
who never agree with the referee and applaud
when he falls flat on his face

        On a breakaway
the centreman carrying the puck
his wings trailing a little
        on both sides why
I’ve seen the aching glory of a resurrection
        in their eyes
        if they score
but crucifixion‘s agony to lose
—the game?

    We sit up there in the blues
bored and sleepy and suddenly three men
break down the ice in roaring feverish speed and
we stand up in our seats with such a rapid pouring
of delight exploding out of self to join them why
their and our orgasm is the rocket stipend
for skating thru the smoky end boards out
of sight and climbing up the appalachian highlands
and racing breast to breast across laurentian barrens
over hudson‘s diamond bay and down the treeless tundra where
auroras are tubercular and awesome and
stopping isn‘t feasible or possible or lawful
but we have to and we have to
        laugh because we must and
stop to look at self and one another but
    our opponent’s never geography
        or distance why
    it’s men
    —just men?

And how do the players feel about it
this combination of ballet and murder?
For years a Canadian specific
to salve the anguish of inferiority
by being good at something the Americans aren‘t
And what’s the essence of a game like this
which takes a ten year fragment of a man’s life
replaced with love that lodges in his brain
    and substitutes for reason?
Besides the fear of injuries
is it the difficulty of ever really overtaking
a hard black rubber disc?
—Boys playing a boy’s game in a permanent childhood
with a screaming coach who insists on winning
sports-writer-critics and the crowd gone mad?
—And the worrying wives wanting you to quit and
your aching body stretched on the rubbing table
thinking of money in owners’ pockets that might be yours
the butt-slapping camaraderie and the self indulgence
of allowing yourself to be a hero and knowing
everything ends in a pot-belly

Out on the ice can all these things be forgotten
in swift and skilled delight of speed?
—roaring out the endboards out the city
streets and hiqh up where laconic winds
whisper litanies for a fevered hockey player
Or racing breast to breast and never stopping
over rooftops of the world and all together
sing the song of winning all together
sing the song of money all together

    (and out in the suburbs
There’s the six-year-old kid
whose reflexes were all wrong
who always fell down and hurt himself and cried
and never learned to skate
with his friends)

— Al Purdy

Canadians love affair with hockey is reflected in the arts. Roch Carrier wrote the quintessential hockey story, The Hockey Sweater. The Crease by Ken Danby is one of the most iconic images in Canadian art. One of the game's best goalies, Ken Dryden, entitled his life in hockey — The Game. In music, Stomping Tom Connors is best known for The Hockey Song. For another generation it would be the Tragically Hip's Fifty Mission Cap which immortalizes Bill Barilko and his Stanley Cup winning goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1951 — "the last goal he ever scored." In poetry, we have Al Purdy and the Hockey Players.

Al Purdy published 33 books of poetry, nine collections of essays and correspondence, a novel, and an autobiography. The Cariboo Horses published in 1965 won the Governor General's Literary Award. His Collected Poems from 1986 won a second Governor General’s Award. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1983 and the Order of Ontario in 1987.

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