Poetry Moment: 'At Fifty' by Jack Ridl
Poetry Moment on WPSU is a program featuring the work of contemporary Pennsylvania poets. Host Todd Davis is a professor of English and Environmental Studies at Penn State Altoona.
This episode’s poem is “At Fifty” by Jack Ridl.
Jack Ridl was born in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, in 1944. He grew up in New Wilmington where his father Buzz Ridl was coach of the basketball and baseball teams at Westminster College. After leading Westminster College to much success, Buzz Ridl accepted the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh in 1968.
Jack Ridl is the author of many collections of poetry, including Saint Peter and the Goldfinch, Practicing to Walk Like a Heron and Broken Symmetry. He taught for more than 37 years at Hope College, and more than 80 of his former students are now published authors.
Ridl’s roots in the sports culture of Pennsylvania run deep and inform his book, Losing Season, from which today’s poem is drawn. Losing Season chronicles a year of hope and defeat on and off the basketball court in a small town very similar to the towns in western Pennsylvania where Ridl competed in basketball and baseball.
Sport is a public spectacle, and the players and coaches of a basketball team live under great scrutiny and pressure. In sport, someone loses and someone wins. While winning is celebrated in our culture, losing is too often associated with character flaws, with a lack of desire or work ethic. In reality, many losing teams are full of athletes with incredible desire, with young men and women who dedicate themselves to their sport and their team. How do we deal with loss? As athletes age, how do they look back at those earlier years, those bodies whose strength and vitality has faded.
Coach hurls the ball against the garage door,
grabs it on the rebound. He’s missed ten
in a row. He steps to the line, bounces
the ball twice, hard, and the fans from
thirty years ago send their hopes across
their weary lungs. He listens to the hush
of the home crowd while the taunts
of those from out of town float through
the rafters down across the backboard,
spinning around and around the rim.
He slams the ball one more time, feels
the leather, eyes the hoop, shoots.
The ball caroms off the back of the rim, rolls
across the driveway into the herb garden
his wife planted the year they found this house.
Once he could drop nine out of ten
from the line, hit half his jump shots
from twenty feet. Coach sits down at
the top of the key, stares, sees himself
bringing it up against the press, faking,
shaking his shoulders, stutter stepping, shifting
the ball left hand to right, then back, then up,
his legs exploding, his wrist firing, the ball
looping up, down, through the hoop, making
the net shimmer, the crowd roar. He gets up,
goes over to the garden, reaches for the ball,
stops and pulls some weeds growing through
the oregano, basil, sage, and thyme.
That was “At Fifty” by Jack Ridl.
Hear more episodes of Poetry Moment at WPSU.org/poetrymoment.
Music by Eric Ian Farmer.