Pleasures of the Game is Austin Allen’s debut collection and the eleventh winner of the Anthony Hecht Prize, in the annual contest run by The Waywiser Press. Its title is perfect: it’s a book entirely devoted to what poetry can do to give us pleasure. It puts aside worry about the unsettled state of the world and the roiling of politics to offer us compelling narrative and verse craft for their own sake as well as for the sake of contemplation. This is the approach we might sensibly expect from a poet whose widely published essays explore form so deeply.
By “puts aside worry” I don’t mean that the book is at all lightweight. It has a dark heart to explore, which is sometimes the heart of the universe and sometimes the very particular heart of a specific narrator. In the book’s opening section, the one most transparently devoted to games, we get a view of certain dark bits of that narrator’s childhood:
The scene, as usual, is a free-for-all:
cheaters inflate their scores, bullies throw punches,
brats try to play the boss and hog the ball;
and one small clique, escaping all defeats,
quickly and sullenly, with black eyes, eats.
In “The House on St. Paul Street” we get his student-years youth, in textured detail that is neither wholly dark nor wholly light, but that pulls the reader into the remembered confusions of that stage of life. “Ode to the Hartford Whalers” moves back into the light in hilarious ottava rima trimeter: it explores “in a key that is cheerfully minor” the woes and joys of loving, from childhood onward, the hapless local hockey team. “In Mudville,” a meditation on the later history of the immortal town in “Casey at the Bat” is possibly the most perfect modern use of heptameter to evoke an old poem in a new one. And here the ills of contemporary life do peer out of the darkness:
Oh, somewhere in the alleys they’ve begun another game,
And the crowd still finds it thrilling, but the rules aren’t quite the same,
And the layoffs at the gasworks have the watchmen carrying knives,
And the mayor wakes in dreams before a council of ex-wives.
Baseball is a major player in this section, featured not only in “Mudville” but also in “The Umpire,” a light-and-dark account of the narrator’s adventures as a very young official, and “Maris*,” a strange amalgam of baseball-record history and the pains of childhood, whether nothing is ever purely light or dark. Juggling and nude chess take their turns.
But the game being played throughout the book is the game of verse-making, and it is being played with virtuosic deftness. There is not even a nod here to the school of poem-making that says, Do not rhyme. Or at least, not much. Or at least not obviously. Rhyme here, to borrow a phrase from A.E. Stallings, is stepping on the gas and minding the wheel. The rhyming here is fearless and multi-patterned. There are fixed forms like the villanelle, and standard patterns like the abab quatrain, and there are nonce schemes, and there are constant change-ups, in which, after five of so lines with no repetition, suddenly everything reverses and we have envelope rhyme, and then even that pattern alters. To a surprising degree, the rhymes are full and true, with the occasional Byronesque pairing, like emphysema’s / I dream his or go on / koan. The ear is always entertained, and it’s never wearied.
Besides the pleasure of rhyme, there’s the pleasure of meter, again of many types. Creamy-smooth iambic pentameter—which opens the book, and which closes it—has its many uses and many pleasures, but variety is also a joy, and this book offers variety: the tall, thin single sentence of dimeter in “Tower Scheherazade,” the relaxed trimeter of “The Order of Her Room,” and the het-met of “Calliope,” to name a few. More pleasures: the energetic diction of lines like “Things smashed and ricocheted and soared and plopped” and the zing of change-up allusions and images in couplets like this one, in a poem about a Halloween party:
Vodka blood punch, communion with the host
who is Paul Bunyan and already drunk
The bravura performance extends throughout the book. The second section concentrates on romantic love, though it sticks to the universal rather than the confessional. Allen does equally well with long poems and with short, but the long poems in his second section are especially impressive, and funny. “Valentine Variations,” for example, is a four-page riff on the “Roses are red” ditty that matches it (almost) rhyme for rhyme, with a cleverness that makes me think of the work of George Starbuck. Another example is “Gossip,” built out of abab tetrameter/trimeters that compress all the famous backstories of the poetic greats, beginning
As Keats loved the nightingale
that blabbed on its backwoods perch,
as Chaucer loved a good tale,
and Frost a solid birch,
and relaxing into simple truth, to end
I want to love you in words
that sing without spilling the goods
like the empty gossip of birds
in the ignorant backwoods.
The book’s first and second sections are so tightly cohesive that the third at first looks disconnected by contrast. Titled “The Moon Who Knows,” it’s bookended with references to space exploration and astronomy. It includes the book’s most demanding (as I think) poem, “The Constant Moons,” and one of its darkest until that poem’s very end, “Enter Titania rising in her turn”—a close I almost missed, believing the poem ended on the preceding page. (Yes, layout matters.) But “The Moon Who Knows” also takes in simple life narratives, the Arabian Nights, ekphrasis, and Johnny Carson. Given all this, its real theme seems to be storytelling itself.
Whether the effect is intended or not, this diffuse warming-up to narrative is a good preparation for the book’s real star turn, “Tamám Shud; or, Secrets in the Sand,” the long poem that makes up the book’s entire fourth section. Based on an actual cold case in Australia in 1948, the story is told entirely in rubaiyat stanzas, beginning with the account of the corpse discovered on Somerton Beach:
It’s done. The tide is calm. The coast is clear
for miles around the man the dawn finds here,
back to a wall, feet pointing toward the sea.
The first inquiring fly crawls in his ear.
The poem retells the facts of the case, but it goes farther, spinning out the various theories and secrets: the Rubaiyat copy that might have been a code’s key, the woman and child who may have been involved. Allen takes the liberty of drawing conclusions the police couldn’t draw, and of tying up some details of the story—but not too neatly, leaving a mystery, like poisoned cigarette smoke, in the air. The poem has all the pleasures of un-put-downable detective fiction, in addition to those of poetry.
In fact, it was “Tamám Shud,” which I read in The Yale Review, that prompted me to buy Pleasures of the Game. I’m glad I did, for many more reasons than that one poem, and I recommend the book’s pleasures to you.
Maryann Corbett was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in northern Virginia. She earned a B.A. from the College of William and Mary and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. She has published three books of poetry: Breath Control (2012); Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter (2013), which was a finalist for the Able Muse Book Prize; and Mid Evil (2014), the winner of the Richard Wilbur Award. In 2009, Corbett was the co-winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Award. She lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.