Eephus by Kevin Varrone (little red leaves textile editions, 29 pages)
The “eephus” is an ultra-lazy baseball pitch that is lobbed in at an unsuspecting hitter with all the zip of a child playing catch with his dad. It was made famous – and defined colloquially – by Rip Sewell in the 1940s. Sewell, who befuddled hitters with the junk ball, explained (according to the on-line Baseball Almanac) that “[a]n eephus ain’t nothing. And that’s what that pitch is… nothing.”
Today, the occasional big league pitcher still pulls an eephus out on the rare occasion to knock a hitter (expecting something over 60 mph) embarrassingly off-balance. Here, Kevin Varrone symbolically lobs an eephus into a poem about art, baseball and American history, spinning it as an image to represent the pure imaginative power that has, at least in the past, balanced all three in American culture. After all, what better way to define the American Dream than with a piece of the National Pastime?
But if baseball has long been the go-to sport for poetic rumination (from William Carlos Williams to W.P. Kinsella), Varrone suggests how baseball-inspired work has evolved, as he pulls the turf out from under its use as a literary device. Baseball, he writes, “isn’t a game it’s mythology”. And so, of course, is art.
Varrone weaves the history of baseball into American history at large, making Eephus about “the game evolved into American/fairytale” and a representation of America as an idea based in story – whether that narrative rolls out over the course of a novel, a poem or nine innings. His prosody here is evocative of the physical boundaries (played between two lines, but with no end border) and slow, sprawling rhythm of the game itself. Each page is a paragraph of prose poetry, with blocks of text and few full stops, the prosy form opening up the work to a continuous flow. Images repeat (entering the diamond is compared to “[t]he way you enter a church” at one point and [t]he way you/enter history” at another), or pop up and abruptly disappear, or reappear remixed with others. Meaning accretes gradually, like runs over the long, lazy course of nine innings.
Varrone references explicit works of baseball Americana (the sentimental flick Field of Dreams; the depression-era painting Baseball at Night by Morris Cantor) but also ‘finds’ traces in works by Charles Olson, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson and others, where the old ballgame might arguably be there in spirit, but not in explicit image. It’s a nice bit of literary wiseacrey, pulling the same mythical threads of baseball that are stitched in some of the popular works from the lining of the deeper philosophical themes of more “serious” ones. Big or small, Pulitzer or popcorn, Varrone finds that baseball is part of a mythical fabric that underlines it all.
Thankfully, Eephus never resolves into One Big Statement on America but remains a rolling, dizzying, patchwork poem that is ultimately as ephemeral – and hypnotizing – as the pitch itself.