Three Poems by Grady Chambers, from North American Stadiums

Authors / Watch & Listen

Three Poems by Grady Chambers, from North American Stadiums

Milkweed Staff — 04/23/2018

North American Stadiums by Grady Chambers is the inaugural winner of the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, and will be published in June 2018.

“This book is in many ways a love letter: to the landscapes of the Midwest and Central New York that I have spent so much time in, to the histories of those places, to the people that I have moved through those places with. It is a book about history large and small—of landscapes, cities, and protests of American wars; of families and relationships; of a mid-summer ballgame, a jacket, a pin. The poems that comprise this book were written over a seven-year period, and the variations across the book’s different sections reflect that fact. Alongside the settings of train cars, winter woods, highways, there are quiet interiors where the past arrives to shape and shade present experience. Memory is an arena of longing and reflection, but also a haunting living presence: the speaker crushes a spider on his bedroom wall and remembers something violent witnessed in his youth; while contending with illness, the speaker tries to piece together a story about dragons once read to him by his father. It is a book, too, about prayer, but prayer not necessarily yoked to religious connotations. The prayer here is, I hope, one that hews closer to praise, the prayer of close attention, the prayer of seeing things as they are, and naming them as such.” —Grady Chambers

The Life

So I drove while she nosed the folds of my sweatshirt
on the bench seat of the Chevy and fell in love

with my smell of ice rinks and rubber though my heart belonged
to other beloveds: stanchions of high-voltage lines

and the stalled horizon or something
as simple as a sparse line of gulls

gliding over the winter lake.
My personal philosophy’s a second-story porch: bee-eaten

beams, wobbly and rotted, corners filled
with the day’s leavings: I liked Bach

for a time and she my soft hands and I
her sun-bleached Cleveland beginnings: but the sepia pictures

and not the life, how they reminded me of photos of old
ballplayers from the early twentieth century,

and I liked more the skateboarder
clearing leaves from the avenue’s cluttered gutters

and the street psychic stating the obvious: it’s November
and we could all use some luck. So we hit Milwaukee

and why? Why not: the art museum was startling,
church wood and folk art and the cracked expanse

of lake ice through the windows. So she liked my mind
or kind eyelashes and bulldozed my back as I fumbled

to say something pretty to bridge the distance.
And we bowled in a basement alley; and we got loaded

and sober and saw the wind carry a leaf
like a hand, stem down, brown palm open

and twirling like a waiter carrying a tray
brimming with champagne flutes: it would take us to

Detroit, Chicago, the spread Midwest, the sun setting
where it always does, Iowa

before winter’s end: where we felt the cold come down
through the hours to a moment fluttered open

like a shuffled deck: taillights on the highway
in patterned brigade, smoke bolstered through idling pipes;

her wondering who I loved, the horseshoe shadow
of my arms proclaiming this, all this.


Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966

Anyone can tell it’s hopeless: early July, jackhammer heat,
Pittsburgh down two in the tenth—even the diehards
in the bleachers are heading for the exits. Why shouldn’t they?
It’s late, work starts early, it’s just another midsummer Sunday night game,
everyone dreading Monday morning, everyone dying of heat
in the grandstand’s packed rows. So most are standing to leave
when a runner gets to first. And then another.
And so a hum starts up, and suddenly the pitcher
can’t find the strike zone. And the fans edging to the exits
keep glancing back as a flutter like a wind
begins to rise: it’s the crowd. It’s the skin
on skin of clapping hands, it’s whistles, it’s the whine
of hinges as the kids in the nosebleeds stand
to see the batter slap a curveball to the gap in center.
A run scores, Bucs now down one. And the frenzy begins
when Roberto Clemente, muscle-car arms, soon-to-be MVP, steps to the plate
and sends a sinker a mile past left for the win. 

I’ve heard the recording: mob scene, chaos, deep stampede, voices
like the roar of water falling into water. Think of it: fathers
unpocketing their Zippos, lighting last smokes, the kids
catcalling for Clemente to take another bow, only July but everyone
talking first place, Pennant race, World Series win, light
like benedictory oil all across the field. No one wants to go home.
And leaving through the gates, a young man in a banded trilby
stops to feel the heat of the assembled, the change in energy.
And seeing the packed trams—men piling up the steps,
skirted girls fleeced in street-lit gold—shrugs
and buys a pint of Flagstaff from the vendor at the exit
and begins the long walk back to his Allentown flat.

That man was my grandfather. He knows he won’t get home
till well past midnight. And he’ll tell this story to his son, my father,
who will pass it on to me, how he decided right then
to take tomorrow off work, take the paper to Roscoe’s
for coffee, for grape jam spread thick on black toast,
for a seat in the sunlight in a booth by the window
where he’ll sit all day and read about the win.
He’ll tell how crossing home that night over Hot Metal’s span,
he looked upriver to see the nighttime shine of the city’s hundred bridges—
Tenth Street’s towers, the tied arch of Birmingham
loping the Monongahela, Liberty’s double-deck grillwork
lashing land to land like a rail tie, like a great animal spine
stretched across the water.

I like to think how the story must have swelled
in the coming months, as these stories do: a minor embellishment
when he tells it to the waitress (Clemente sent it 600 feet),
a little something more when he tells it to a neighbor
(the crowd was fifty thousand strong), the story tricked into myth
by the time it finds the welders at Jones and Laughlin—the odds now impossible,
the heat like a steel mill, how the heart of the ball
tore off its cover in its flight across the wall.

But here are the facts: two weeks from that night
he’ll meet my grandmother. By November they’ll be married.
Pittsburgh will slip to third in the last week of the season
and lose out on the Pennant. Roberto Clemente will hit .317,
win the MVP, die young in December of ’72
in a plane crash off coastal Puerto Rico.
And over the years, the details of that night
will not be so much lost
as evened out, bleached into other summers: somewhere
a heat wave, somewhere tall beers on a sun-hot bumper,
summer the Jones and Laughlin Steel Co. moved to South Side;
summer the fog flanked the river till it was known
only by its sound.

So when it reaches me from my grandfather’s lips,
that July night in Forbes Field will have been whittled down
to its pinprick significance: no Gene Kelly glow, no nostalgia of firework light
from road flares cutting lanes through the postgame crowd,
just an old man’s memory of heat and floodlights, a ball game
in summer, deep shadows on chessboard grass,
thin now as the tremor in his hand
as he points across the water and tells it
as he remembers: It was midnight in July.
I was just a young man. And I walked home over the bridge. 


Another Beauty I Remember

Somewhere in South Chicago the millwrights and welders
of US Steel are leaving their masks
to hooks and lockers and shining out
into evening still covered in dust.
Those men do not belong to me, their world of arc
and fire, but many nights I have loved them.

When I was seventeen
my friends and I rode each weekend
toward the Indiana border. One drove, another worked the dials
on the radio, and I drank gin in the back
and ordered us to slow over the toll bridge
to peer down at the barge lights roaming the Calumet River,
then up to where the smokestacks of US Steel
rose like an organ in a church. Gin, fire, the workers
coming off their shifts, light lighting up the metal-dust
spread along their shoulders like the men
had all walked through plate glass windows.

Their dust does not belong to me, but many nights I have loved them.
They do not live where I was born, north of the mammoth
glass residences of the Gold Coast
where the worst news
was soon mended: a neighbor girl’s bone
broken in a fall. A garage fire sullying the air
over Broadway and Balmoral. I did not know
their sons: the Byrnes, the Walshes, the Mansekies
of Bridgeport and Fuller Park. The green parade and the green
river and the pride of the Irish. Laughter, bright
balloons over cracked asphalt, yellow hair
and sunlight, all the families singing songs
of another country.

I keep taking the long road back
to that summer because the image won’t leave me:
weekend evenings, gin and driving south, smoke
blasting from the factory stacks,
the men glancing up at the flash of our passing.
We were going to spend all night drinking gin
on an Indiana beach. Dust had settled
like fragments of a hand grenade, like silver wings
across the backs of the men. We were going to tell each other
what was beautiful.

The dark water was beautiful. The fire drowning
the air with smoke, our voices
drowned by the sound.
I stood at the edge of the water
where the coastline stretched from my left
and curved enough north that the stitch
of factory lights looked like they were shining
from the far side of the lake.
We burned traces into the air with the burning
tips of sticks poked into the heart of fire.
We all said the sky was beautiful. Our bodies light
against the water.

Somewhere in South Chicago the millwrights and welders
of US Steel are leaving their masks to hooks
and they are going home. What did I know then? What did I know
of the beauty of the men?
Driving past, I watched just long enough
to see them stepping out of their shifts,
believing them angelic, knowing not a thing
about their lives, each of them, perhaps, seeing what I saw: light
coming off the backs of the others as they drifted
into the lot, but knowing the light I saw was dust,
not wings, and, knowing to call it dust,
calling it dust.



Grady Chambers, NORTH AMERICAN STADIUMS by Milkweed Editions


An earlier version of “Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966” originally appeared in Diode Poetry Journal. An earlier version of “Another Beauty I Remember” originally appeared in Midwestern Gothic and Independent Best American Poetry 2016.

Designed to honor the legacy of one of the most original and accomplished poets to debut in recent years—and to reward outstanding poets for years to come, the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize awards $10,000 and publication to the author of a debut collection of poems.