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tony sanders, warning track
15 June 2004
Books, covers . . . when I saw Tony Sanders's new collection Warning Track, I assumed it was about baseball, but was disappointed to find that the cover didn't even invoke the Pastime. On my way out of the bookstore, I checked again, opening the volume to its title poem. I was glad I did, because "The Warning Track" begins like this:
Baseball is the purest sport, meaning
ballparks out in the heartland, mixing
forkballs and slurves, tapping
slow choppers in a spring rain. (51)
Poetic revenge on any baseball writer who has ever noted that "April is the cruelest month." "The Warning Track" spans five long parts, just like T.S. Eliot's "Waste Land"; the setting is Shea Stadium "under the light smog of a winter dawn" (53). The poem is a classic parody, a loving recreation of its original in ridiculous terms rather than sublime. Or rather, since the impulse of much of "The Waste Land" is to parody the Western tradition, "The Warning Track" may actually restore the language of "The Waste Land" to the sublime. There's nothing quite as sublime in American discourse as baseball.
That's the main difficulty posed by Sanders's "Warning Track": is it sublime or ridiculous? The terms in which baseball is sublime, after all – the ballparks in the heartland, the built-in elegaic feel, the lack of a clock, the eternal battle between batter and pitcher – have become, after generations of rhapsodic sportswriting, clichés that verge on the ridiculous. When the memory of Bart Giamatti blossoms forth ever green, can we really feel awe for Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Bobby Thomson? Or is the invocation of such heroes merely another layer of cynicism, parody bounced off parody? DiMaggio is not even invoked directly in "The Warning Track" but via Simon and Garfunkel. In "The Warning Track," the language of baseball – like the literary languages that Eliot shored against his ruins – always seems ready to collapse from too much familiarity, too much knowing.
In the end, "The Warning Track" isn't a very close parody. Faithful almost line by line to its model through three sections, the poem wanders off base in the fourth and fifth sections, detaching itself from "The Waste Land" (evoking more Eliot's Four Quartets). By the end of the poem, the speaker is in an abandoned ballpark, "standing on the place where the plate used to be / and picking up a handful of dust" (63). The game's timeless nature is contrasted to the evanescence of worldly things. (That contrast, again, may be relatively fresh in postmodern poetry, but it's as old as the hills in baseball writing.)
But wait a minute: Shea Stadium isn't abandoned. Maybe it should be abandoned, but it's still sitting there in Flushing, between a swamp and a junkyard. Where is the final section of "The Warning Track" set? Where are these poems about?