Thursday, September 18, 2008

Book Review: Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems

I'll admit, I don't read much poetry. Okay, any poetry. As a kid, I enjoyed writing it but a brief obsession with Shel Silverstein was the extent of reading it outside of English assignments (and I'll be honest, I relied heavily on Cliff's Notes).

Still, as a writer, I identify with the effort of good writing, even if I'm not willing to put in the effort of reading it. And to some degree, poetry does take a bit more effort than your average prose. It's not for the easily distracted or those who demand instant gratification. Fortunately, the only thing that truly holds my attention in absolutely any form (KHL issues excluded) is hockey, and being a glutton for punishment, I believe a little delayed gratification is good for the soul.

So, when I found out Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems, a book of poetry by Randall Maggs about late goaltending legend, Terry Sawchuk, was coming out last spring, I knew it was something I had to take a crack at. Of course, being a fairly new hockey fan at the time, I also needed to bone up on who Terry Sawchuk was beyond his Wikipedia entry.

I started my Sawchuk education by reading his biography, Sawchuk: The Troubles and Triumphs of the World's Greatest Goalie by David Dupuis. It's a good, thorough book whose author obviously had to dig pretty hard to scrounge up a lot of information on the famously reclusive, reserved hockey great. While I'm not saying the book is a prerequisite, I know myself well enough to know that if I feel like I'm missing part of the story, I'll get frustrated. I found having the baseline information helpful.

Even with this knowledge, there were times I found myself wondering where the author was taking me with a particular piece. Perhaps a more seasoned poetry aficionado would have known to be patient and trust that a good poet will eventually unfold the story for you. He did every time and it was always gratifying and worth the wait.

And what this book turned out to be was not just a book about a hockey player or a book of poetry. At times straightforward, at times teasing, sensual, mysterious, or sad, it is an experience as much as a book.

Night Work is brilliant in at least two ways. First, as a book, it's varied in style, tone, perspective, always changing just when you think it could get dull. Always forcing you to chew a bit, and chew slowly at that, and being all the more enjoyable when you surrender to the pace of the writing.

Second, it's the idea itself: poetry about a hockey goalie? Maggs is utterly inspired for seeing what an ideal subject Sawchuk's life is for such treatment. The style is spot on, nothing maudlin, saccharine, or cliche. Just a constant, subtle restraint that pulls you along, wanting more.

Here's an excerpt from one of my favorites:

No Country for Old Men


I'd like to leave hockey like that. In good style.
Someone read his lips and wrote it down.

Bedlam drowned the words themselves. An uproar
after the miracle, jubilation, the clatter of sticks flung down
on the dressing room floor like crutches in a pile,
hair-stuck tape and plaster peeled away.
Down to the raw, gap-toothed, wrapped in towels,
the shouts and candour of the showers, though each
of the Leafs had stopped to speak a word or two to Terry,
each taking in the open flap of undershirt, the old man's bones
like a washboard. Where the devil does he find it?

The seeming fleshless legs without their pads.


Half undressed he slumps
against the wall, no one says a word
about the cigarette in his hand. He'd drink a 7 UP
but can't get up and wouldn't ask. A fog billows out
of the showers. Bare feet flap the marshy floor.
Cautiously, the press guys squeeze between the massive flanks
and watch their backs--a snapping towel could tear your ear,
or worse, take the arse right out of your suit.
A little getting even masked as a joke.

A Leaf or two has slipped away and the older guys
are quieter now, more thoughtful, knotting ties,
one by one they sense a deepening silence in the room
and turn to look where Terry's resting, panting, having
wrestled off his sodden shirt. Their eyes tell them
armload of plums, say peacock's plumage.
Their fingers pause in their intricate task. Jesus, Ukey,
someone breaks the silence. The whole room
gapes at the hammered chest and belly. Easy to count
the darker nine or ten from Hull. They can't even look
at the shoulder, but watch as he peels off the infamous underwear
and heads without a word toward the showers.

These were guys who'd paid their dues,
who'd seen it all. But this was a moment that got their attention,
seeing what they'd asked of him that night.
Seriously, a most excellent book. Go here and buy yourself a copy and wallow in your hockey nerditude. You know you want to. I never re-read books, but this one will be an off-season staple for years to come. That's about as high a compliment as I can give any piece of literature.


Kirsten  September 18, 2008 at 5:21 PM  

Well it has to be better than Ken Dryden's book. I know that EVERYONE thinks it's the most brilliant hockey book ever written, but after forcing myself to read the first 29 pages, I just gave up. I force myself to read enough things for school.

hipcheck  September 18, 2008 at 8:08 PM  

Wow, that was really amazing. I will need to go out and get that book.

Ms. Conduct  September 19, 2008 at 8:45 AM  

Funny, I'm reading Dryden's book right now and you can toss me in the "brilliant" bucket. I'm enjoying the hell out of it. :)

Kirsten  September 19, 2008 at 11:43 AM  

Haha, well I'm glad you're enjoying it. Hopefully that review of it doesn't spoil the book for you in any way.

Maybe I'm just not goalie enough for it.

Ms. Conduct  September 19, 2008 at 2:02 PM  

How nice is this? I got an email from the author saying he never responds to reviews but wanted to tell me how much he appreciated mine. That's pretty darn cool.

Kitty Lewis  September 19, 2008 at 9:56 PM  

hi, Ms. Conduct, thanks for the great review of this book. I'm really glad you liked it.

Kitty Lewis, General Manager, Brick Books - the publisher of this book

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