A Review of Jack Ridl’s Losing Season

Michigan poet, author, and teacher Jack Ridl’s latest collection of poetry, entitled Losing Season, lends much credence to the idea that athletics and the arts are not, as our popular culture would have us believe, separate endeavors that must be held in opposition to one another. Certainly, there are poets, novelists, and sports writers who have portrayed with a certain graceful language the games that many of us know, love, and follow passionately. However, no work of literature, at least none that I’ve had the pleasure of reading, captures more perfectly the melding of sport and the human spirit than Ridl’s eloquent collection of poems.
 
The seventy poems that make up Losing Season are much more than just a thematically related collection. They instead work together to form a sort of novella of poetry. They tell the story of a small American town, following its inhabitants and its high school basketball players as the team plods through a losing season. This being my first experience with a book of poetry that reads more like a novella than anything else, I was pleasantly surprised with how well Ridl was able to incorporate elements of fiction such as character, plot, and conflict into the poetic form. He makes the reader feel the emotional fluctuation of the townspeople as they struggle to keep their spirits up during the course of a harsh winter and an even harsher basketball season. Like so many small towns, the non-playing citizens are just as passionate about high school sports as the kids that actually play them, living vicariously through the boys on the court.
 
Perhaps the strongest and most enjoyable aspect of Losing Season is its wonderfully rich and colorful cast of characters. There is Coach, the story’s protagonist, a former basketball star and current high school history teacher who bears the weight of the team’s lack of success like a cross upon his back. There is the aptly-named Star, the team’s leader and best player who loves to play basketball but loathes the pressure of the small-town spotlight. There is Scrub, the hard-working, big-dreaming kid who always rides the pine and never gets the girl. The characters are drawn from every facet of small-town life: there are poems from the perspective of the janitor, the equipment manager, the referee, the bus driver, the statistician, and the usual crowd who debate the games at the local diner, to name a few. The attitudes of these characters range from an unbridled youthful optimism to a fond, detached longing for the past to a trying sense of downright despair.
 
The poems themselves are almost all written from the viewpoint of one of these characters. Ridl gives the reader a glimpse into the minds of the characters, revealing their hidden fears, dreams, desires, and apprehensions. An excerpt from one poem, a snapshot of Star entitled “Bad Night at Practice,” is a good example:
 
He’s tired
of his own right hand,
how it feels alone
without a ball, tired
of white socks,
neat shirts, firm
handshakes, hope.
 
The language is poignantly sparse and to the point, grounded in the everyday, yet contains flashes of complex beauty that often show a character’s desire to transcend the routine of their lives. This, as Ridl’s poems show, is what makes basketball, or any sport for that matter, so important to the dynamic of small-town living. Many of the characters in Losing Season are essentially portrayed as “past their prime.” Their lives no longer hold the passion, excitement, and possibility of youth; they are resigned to subsistence and survival. However, at every basketball game they can participate in something larger than themselves, and share with the boys on the team in the battle not just to play, to exist, but to win, to mean something and be somebody. “Before the Game,” a poem from the point of view of the school janitor, is a perfect example:
 
He remembers going
out with Cindy Cross.
She married a car dealer.
His hands feel like young birds.
 
The team comes bursting
through the locker room
door, clapping, yelling past
him. He slaps each player
on the shoulder, says,
“Good luck. Go get ‘em.”
 
The collectiveness shown in poems like these illustrates perfectly how the team is able to make the mundane reality of the present bearable for so many of the characters that seem to be living in the past. However, as the play of the team worsens, so do the general attitudes of the people in the town. Coach remarks bitterly in the poem “The Morning after the Tenth Straight Loss” that “The only thing that’s happy in my life”/ “is my dog’s tail,” and in the poem “Coach’s Wife,”
She remembers
being happy,
looking forward
to something
besides another day
to get up.
 
Some regard those who would temper their existence with the fortunes of a sports team shallow, but Ridl’s poetic descriptions of the technical and emotional aspects of basketball make it seem more like an art form than a simple game. In a poem entitled “Insomnia,” Coach, drawing plays up in his head, seems to the reader more like a Renaissance master contemplating the arrangement of elements on a canvas than a basketball coach:
 
Game plans swirl
in Coach’s head
like a crowd
pushing for seats.
He imagines
Watts learning
to go to his left,
Thompson crashing
the boards, Donatelli
passing up a shot
to hit Wilson open
underneath. He grabs
his clipboard, diagrams
another way to spring
Kochinski free.
 
In another poem entitled “All He Does,” Star, working on his jump shot, seems more like a violin virtuoso practicing a solo than a kid killing a few hours in his driveway before dinner:
 
He works the corners, moves around the key,
gives a sudden fake, a swift shimmy
of his shoulders, then lifts his jump shot
soft into the air, his breathing as calm as sleep.
 
In other poems which depict moments in the team’s games, the players on the court move with all the grace and technical precision of pieces in a chess game. It’s a game of strategy, but also of luck, gumption, passion, and fortitude. It is a game that is not only played on the court but in the mind and the subconscious as well. Coach and his team must not only overcome the other teams, but themselves as well.
 
As the season drags on and the losses keep coming, Coach and his players are tortured by their inability to sustain the town with success. The cover of the book, which depicts Atlas crouched over with a basketball on his shoulders instead of the world, is a perfect metaphor for what they feel is their inescapable responsibility. Ultimately, though they fail in the end to win, the book seems to hint that all is not lost, for there will be another year, and another brand new season to hope for success. The poem which ends the collection, “Night Gym,” seems to reaffirm this idea, as it shows the deserted gym lying dormant in wait for the bright possibilities that a new season will bring:
 
The night wind rattles
the glass in the front doors.
The furnace, reliable
as grace, sends its steady
warmth through the rafters,
under the bleachers, down
the halls, into the offices
and locker rooms. Outside,
the snow falls, swirls, piles
up against the entrance.
 
Each poem in Losing Season has its own kind of brilliance and its own revelations about the human condition. They ruminate on success and failure, hope and doubt, defeat and endurance, meaning and meaninglessness, dualities of human existence that all forms of art strive to capture. What is so wonderful about Jack Ridl’s book is its ability to start with a simple concept, basketball in a small town, and weave it into a story that engages these much larger issues tactfully and with poetic grace. Whether you’re a sports fan, a fan of poetry, or a lover of both, Losing Season is a book that will remind you why you fell in love with either of them in the first place.
 


Works by Jack Ridl

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