Sunday, September 11, 2011


Netflix has recently put a back catalog of professional wrestling videos into its instant stream. These are low-budget compilation videos that either highlight certain career arcs or rank wrestlers from different eras according to an arbitrary, if fairly predictable, matrix of profitability and profile. On the whole, the matches have aged very poorly; a tradeoff of spectacle for skill masks over the glaring deficiencies of the most popular wrestlers, while the best technical wrestlers aren't popular enough to warrant a big-market compilation video. I might argue here that the most skillful matches of all-time are lost in the ether of memory and anecdote, somewhere between Memphis and Tuscaloosa, to the heyday of traveling circus shows and local circuits, rather than carefully scripted television events, but this would be confusing with its popularity the basic argument of wrestling. A wrestling match is spectacle. It teases and cajoles. It holds our attention until we pause a moment to catch our breath, and when we look back, against our better judgment, we wonder: how was this outcome ever in doubt?

Wrestling and politics work within similar, stable grammars of prediction and preordination. In pure wrestling terms, Barack Obama is a face, Mitt Romney is a face, and Rick Perry is a heel who has arrived on the scene quickly and forcefully to clear the ring and put Romney over with a skeptical base. If Romney beats Perry by seeming more reasonable and electable, then Perry will have done his job, in much the same way that Perry's arrival already diminishes Michelle Bachman's meteoric rise and fall. If you liked Bachman, the reasoning goes, because you wanted a charismatic fringe candidate who spoke truth to power, truth be damned, then you could do better to pick the big-state governor over the blue-state Congressperson. Perry is ultimately unstable, prone to gaffes, hyperbole, and blunder; this is his role as a heel, to show us how calm, cool, vetted, and venerable Romney seems in comparison. Perry comes forward to remind us not to elect candidates like him, to choose them as heroes, to love them as spoilers, but, in the end, root for the guy who really has the chance to win.

Roland Barthes loved wrestling. In his terrific 1957 essay, The World of Wrestling, Barthes locates wrestling in a long tradition of Western spectacles:

"...wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama, and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve...The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees."

I think that I was hoping to find such a cathartic moment in flipping through the Netflix catalog of wrestling moments past, but instead, I found myself fast-forwarding, over and over, to the very ends of matches, and feeling more than a little hollow as, time and again, the hero emerged, bloodied, wobbly, and victorious. Why did I want my boyhood heroes to suffer so mightily? I don't admire it now. Their Olympian physiques seem cartoonish, yes, but also strange and vulnerable for the bulges of fat, and the absence, and the plain, blunt literalness of so much muscle on slender, small frames. Always some knee is being crushed, worked over, worn down. You can see on the foreheads of old wrestlers thin scars from where they cut themselves with razor blades. Then, you only saw the blood. Now, the gesture of suffering is symbolic, persuasive even, but the blood is still real. The audience roars. It is keen to judge the worthiness of a sacrifice. The sacrifice is rehearsed and I fear that the witness is cued, and so, performed, too. What I feel now starts as expectation and ends as nostalgia, but also disappointment that I dismiss the range of this thing I once so admired as to study and love it, passionately and exclusively as what I love now.

A friend asked recently if I was writing about Walt and the first year of his life in my poems; do new poems reflect as intense an engagement with present-day subject matter as older ones do with the past? The answer, not surprisingly, is that I don't take as much time to write the catalog of Walt's first year. We do scrapbook. We take photos and share them with friends and family members. We write email updates and every once in a while I work into this blog a paragraph about something Walt and I have done together. I think there is a predictability in what I might enjoy during my time with Walt that may seem very familiar to how our culture thinks about new parents, and to what just-parents remember about their own experience. I don't mean to deny the common ground. But I wonder if it's as interesting and useful to articulate it. The best poems, for me, are those that have a voice in which I believe, to which I want to listen, and also a subject matter that I find interesting. I really have no reason not to write poems about Walt, except that at the moment, I'm writing about and trying to make sense of other things. With that in mind, I'll close with two striking poems by Michael Longley:

The Ice-Cream Man

Rum and raisin, vanilla, butter-scotch, walnut, peach:
You would rhyme off the flavours. That was before
They murdered the ice-cream man on the Lisburn Road
And you bought carnations to lay outside his shop.
I named for you all the wild flowers of the Burren
I had seen in one day: thyme, valerian, loosestrife,
Meadowsweet, tway blade, crowfoot, ling, angelica,
Herb robert, marjoram, cow parsley, sundew, vetch,
Mountain avens, wood sage, ragged robin, stitchwort,
Yarrow, lady’s bedstraw, bindweed, bog pimpernel.

The Design

Sometimes the quilts were white for weddings, the design
Made up of stitches and the shadows cast by stitches.
And the quilts for funerals? How do you sew the night?

No comments: