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Two Sawchuk poems

Night_work_cover Randall Maggs has hockey in his blood and poetry in his heart. The two combine in stunning fashion in his splendid book Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems.

A native of western Canada with roots in Edmonton and Vermilion, Maggs grew up in Terry Sawchuk's Winnipeg and now makes his living teaching Canadian Literature and Creative Writing at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College in my own home province of Newfoundland and Labrador. His work, a decade in the writing, involved interviewing dozens of the most famous hockey people from Sawchuk's time, weaving in insider insights from his brother Darryl Maggs, who played over 500 major league games in the 1970s with and against many players with firsthand accounts of that era. When it was finally complete and published by Brick Books in 2008, Night Work was launched at the Hockey Hall of Fame before well-known members of both the arts and hockey communities. A fitting setting for one of the truly great hockey books it has been my joy to read.  

I came across Night Work serendipitously last December when researching this Copper & Blue article on Terry Sawchuk, one of the most fascinating characters in the game's long, often dark history. Looking for a digital version of a famous image I googled "Sawchuk stitches", and was startled to find my first hit at the website of Poetry Foundation, along with a glowing review of Maggs' book which closes with said picture. Before I knew it I had a poem as well as a photo to accompany my article, soon followed by a note of thanks from the publisher which led to a splendid correspondence with the man himself.

On Tuesday March 23, Randall Maggs comes to Edmonton to give a reading (Audrey's Books, 7:30 p.m.), in a western Canadian book tour that includes Yellowknife (March 25 and 27), Whitehorse (March 29 and 30) and Vancouver (April 1). To mark the occasion Randy has graciously agreed to an exclusive (and extensive!) Copper & Blue interview, while Brick Books has donated a signed copy of his book for a giveaway contest. Watch C&B for both of these in the coming days.

A work that has already been "covered" in film and in song, Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems was honoured earlier this month with its latest recognition. The Kobzar Literary Award, a biennial $25,000 award given by the Shevchenko Foundation, recognizes "outstanding contributions to Canadian literary arts through an author’s presentation of a Ukrainian Canadian theme with literary merit". Maggs' sensitive treatment of the immigrant experience that was central to Sawchuk's life, is certain to strike a responsive chord with this area's sizeable Ukrainian population.

I could wax prosaic about how Night Work reaches beyond the game on the ice and inside the very motivations of the men who play/ed it. Instead, read on after the jump for two complete Sawchuk poems and let the author reach you with his own words. 

The first pertains to tales of mayhem attributed to Sawchuk's long time Detroit Red Wings teammate Pete Goegan, as related years later to Darryl Maggs on the California Golden Seals team bus.  The character is from a specific time, but the mayhem itself is timeless, central to the game, as much a throwforward as a throwback.

Guys like Pete Goegan

        We still went under the system, then, that praise
        to the face was open disgrace

                    - Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Guys like Pete Goegan, sent out by Adams
to settle a score or get something going, throwbacks
to Jack's own day when, bleeding, you'd swing by the bench
for a swipe with a sponge, the clouding bucket an emblem of pride
in a simpler time, players with slicked-down hair
hurrying back and forth along the boards.

Pete Goegan. His name would come up
years later, mentioned by Walt McKechnie on the bus,
the Golden Seals on a terrible slide, another collapse at the end,
the seats in the dark slowly filling, guys bandaged and beat
and deflated, but shifting over to share a seat, careful
not to mention the good move or save or giving up the body for the team.
The voices down in the back are subdued, the talk
of a nose rearranged,  a glove flapped in the face of a disliked
opponent. You hear the quiet approving laughter, the talk
down the old road, old debts erased, the scraps and skirmishes,
pastings of mythological proportion, toughest of the tough -
the blood in the bucket still at the game's true heart.
The smaller guys, the skill guys and skaters
like Gilbertson, who took a bad whack in the corner
tonight, listen mainly, knowing their place
at the edge of things.

McKechnie, the veteran, stretches back
like an old scarred cat. You sense a hit of weariness
in a world so familiar, the gloom of a mid-season slump,
his place on the bus and its heat on his ancient legs,
a loosened tooth he tests with the tip of his tongue,
the last word left for him. "No contest," he says,
the meanest son of a bitch he’s ever seen
was Pete Goegan. "He’d put your eye out as soon
as shake your hand. He’d pitchfork his mother."

Nodding, we stare out the windows, watching stragglers
leaving the Stadium. One points out the idling, darkened bus
with a shout and hurls himself against the chain-link fence.
Half watching, some of the older guys mull over
how you end up in the life you do.
The younger ones, which side of the ice
Goegan played and how they might measure up.
And maybe where was the guy or two
they knew who'd lost an eye.

And then, intruding  into the silence,
an unexpected voice – Gilbertson, his words
as soft and perfectly timed as one of his passes,

"Put out your eye," he says.
"The son of a bitch. You know he’d only do that
to me twice."

The second is a remarkable suite loosely covering a Stanley Cup winning day in the mid-1950s from Sawchuk's perspective. Along the way it deals with our very perception of time, a referee's control over it, the panic before the moment, the celebration after it, and the fleeting nature of time's passage before the next great thing (Glenn Hall of the Edmonton Flyers) would supplant him. With that most timeless of human activities, sex, for dessert.  

Different ways of telling time

        (i)     last minute of play
Four-faced, the clock sees everywhere.
Dead centre over the ice, it hangs from chains.
The players glance up, exchange a word, a sideward
look - less than a minute to go. They know time's rough
and tumble. Space and time, that's where they live,
arcs and angles, a quick move to open ice.
Their flashy physics.
Spectacles shift and glitter behind the glass.
Maybe someone they know but they never look
at the crowd. They're at the bench to hear the plan -
"Boys, you get a bounce here, things can happen fast."
Left out on the ice - they might as well be
on the moon - both goalies eye the clock,
one's for zero, the other likes infinity,
but things can change.
Get going clock.
Slow down slow down.
No one in the building likes time's pace.
        (ii)     you could drift out here forever
Jesus, here we go.
Seventh game, and seconds left to overtime. 
Talk's over at the glass, the captains
waved away. The referee holds four fingers up
and folds his arms, four seconds he wants put back
on the clock. Son of a bitch, an old defender
sags against the boards. Still, imagine the power,
to kick time's arse like that.
        (iii)     sudden death
The light begins to fade. The cat wants out.
The hours to game-time leak away.
A hint of green pushes into the woods on the long par five
behind the house. I watch the cat sharpen up on a favourite stump.
She yawns and stretches out to twice her length, then leisurely,
she makes her way toward the trees.
Driving into the city, the traffic's heavy,
creeping along in a cloud of exhaust. Stop and go.
The radio low. Country songs, warning about the snow
coming down from Canada. Clutch in clutch out and drift in dreams
of accidents and overtime. Blink and you're done, a dead man
or worse, a radio joke until four in the morning.
        (iv)     ice time
The guys arrive as if at random intervals,
lay out their gear, lucky shirt, same skate first,
same old jokes about my liniment, Jesus,
Ukey, lose that shit why don't you?
Roll their eyes and tiptoe by.
Check the clock and tape my own stick,
thank you, heel to toe, no wrinkles, tape the ankles.
Time to go out and get loose, guys in twos and threes
at home on ice, tucking pucks lazily under the crossbar.
Same old talk, someone you got to slow down,
a glance where he's talking it up
with his own guys.
Here's the house where I live, I can't say no.
Howe and Lindsay's eyes on me. Pronovost, tough
as a bag of batteries, slaps my pads. I see myself as I pass
in the glass, pick up that look from the other side, a nice pair
of knees that edge apart as I go by. I get a whiff of ice
and something in me starts alive. I take
a few shots, catch and flick, feeling
quick, clank behind me,
lucky too.
Then back inside and bedlam now. Adams
flapping but I don’t hear. Holy Mary, don’t let me
fall on my face tonight
. I try to loosen a pad, my shaking
hand so bad Jesus Jesus. Tommy Ivan shoves in beside me,
knowing he needs to settle me down. New cufflinks on.
Knocks my stick for luck I’m nodding but Mother of Christ
I’m dying inside, can’t keep still now everybody wants to go,
the clatter, the chatter, rockers, talkers. "Gotta have this one.
Gotta have it guys." This was where we’d bellow out
some raunchy song when we were young, scare
the bejesus out of everyone. "Nice neighbourhood like this,"
they’d say. "Who let the bloody DPs in?" Tommy drums
a rhythm on my leg – I watch his moving hand
distracted by the veins and lines that make the hand
a miracle, an acrobat, a thief. Gotta have it, guys.
I brace for the roar at the end of the tunnel.
"Give me a hand here, Tommy, tuck that in, that – look,
that bloody strap." Then bang the door and Jesus here we go,
someone shouts those words I love and dread, I hear
them all my life – Let the goalie go first
        (v)     carpe diem
They yammer at the press in towels
and the present tense - "So I see Goldie sneaking in
and what I think, I think . . . "
I flick the water from a blade. The living
moment's where they ply their trade, you get your chance
you make it count. They like where time gets in your face
and open ice where you can really fly, or close-in battle
when the sticks get high, the action hot and heavy
as a leg draws up the sheet and slowly
opens out, my living Christ. They swing behind the net,
glancing up to find a gap, an open man, they like the crowd
up on their feet, the bodies piling on, the heft
and taste of women overhead.
"So I see Goldie sneaking in, I'm thinking, man,
if I can just draw Lumley to that post then slip it back
to him, but holy jumpin' don't let this one get away.
You get your chance, you better make it count.
I guess I just get lucky, Fred."
I wipe the other blade and smile.
Seems a neighbourhood I know from long ago.
        (vi)     big river
Stirring in the dark from ache to ache, crabbing
after scraps of sleep. Outside, the muffled quiet says the snow
has come. I love the city softly locked.
Let it snow forever.
I watch her shoulder's gentle rise and fall,
like she's floating on the water.
Her back's a miracle, so long and smooth
and brown, and there the jut of hip in envied sleep.
I trace a nail along her spine. Where has she been to get
so brown? What was she saying as I fell asleep? - The smell
of smoke from open fires, barking dogs and swimming out
into the harbour in the dark. Drifting off, I'd felt her
fingers trace their path from scar to scar. This was Watson,
this one here, Henri Richard, and here's the night Pit Martin
cracked your mask and blackened both your eyes, this one
you can hardly see, your brother on the rink
behind your house . . .
How good was that tonight. The guys
were bouncing off the walls. Jack was grabbing
everyone - he knew we had it in us all the time. His buddies
from the press were happy too, no trouble getting anyone
to talk tonight. You hear the racket in the shower,
"What a smack, that little head fake shit . . . "
"Just a sucker punch, hey everybody
knows the guy . . . "
I don't need her clock to know the time.
I shift the arm again, but can't shake something
someone said last night - "Hey, that kid out there
in Edmonton, that gaping hole between his legs,
but man he's got the corners covered.
Ukey Ukey watch your ass."
I crab a little closer to her back.
God, how bad I need this heat.

If you enjoyed these, you'll love Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems.