In Brilliant Explosions Alone:
A Brilliant Blending of Pitcher and Poet
The writer who follows the adage “write what you know” is sure to produce a credible read; pushed further along the spectrum of engagement, however, he who writes not only from knowledge but from love creates work truly passion-infused. Such is the most recent poetry chapbook by Steve Brightman, whose knowledge and love of the game of baseball ignited the collection In Brilliant Explosions Alone, published by Night Ballet Press. More than baseball, it is about Cleveland Indians baseball during a particular 2008 season, and about a particular young pitcher with promise to spare who failed to live up to his own and the fans’ great expectations. Jeremy Sowers, the subject of Brightman’s lyric sequence, embodies much more than a could-have-been-ace pitcher: in these poems he is a metaphor for a dream and a dream dashed, a modern-day David whose Goliath might be a Yankee slugger or Life coming at you. In the poem, “All Our Smaller Battles,” Brightman aptly plays on that comparison―the small man with the sling shot and the one with hard ball―in the poem’s final stanza:
. . .
This is where our stoic southpaw
became us, because not all of us
get to slay Goliath. Not all of us
get cast as David.
Most of us rest our heads
as the vanquished.
In Brilliant Explosions Alone works almost as a lyric documentary, one that the reader views in her imagination, game-by-game, poem-by-poem. The book is neatly unified around the 2008 Indians season and proceeds chronologically from Sowers’ opening game in March to his last in September. Cleverly, play dates replace page numbers, a feature that draws the reader further into the atmosphere of the field, the fans, the solitary pitcher on the mound.
The 22 poems that form the narrative of Jeremy Sowers’ turbulent season are bookended by a poignant prologue and epilogue. The prophetic prologue poem, “Left and Nothing,” sets the tone of the collection:
. . .
for getting lost
in the crowd of
paid to see him
pitch that day.
The epilogue poem, “Or Best Offer,” closes the narrative with a suggestion of regret, of failure. Each of the four stanzas begins with the line “Not one damn kid/”:
. . .
Not one damn kid
signs on the dotted line
thinking that he is going
to find his cards buried
in a box of commons or
sold on eBay in lots of 50
for a dollar or best offer.
. . .
Not one damn kid
signs on the dotted line
thinking that he will be
epilogue before he’s thirty.
In this closing poem, Sowers, our anti-hero, broadly represents promise unfulfilled and the sad regret of failure under the field’s night lights. The poet’s richly sympathetic rendering of his subject is the heart beat of this book. Brightman’s real skill lies in his ability to establish an authorial distance and at the same time empathize so fully with the struggling pitcher, such that, for the reader, his struggle becomes our own.
The poems are shaped by taut, condensed lines, often running unbroken down the page, much like the outline of a fast ball over home plate. This, combined with the poet’s employment of the game’s charged argot and repetitive phrasing, results in a compelling cover-to-cover read; for this reader, in one captivated sitting. Take the poem, “Counting Tigers”:
tonight made it past
tonight were left
stranded; . . .
The recurring phrasing and form creates an urgent tempo that draws us through to the final stanza where the reference shifts to “One Indian/tonight has finished/counting Tigers.”
An effective use of the speech line underscores the clipped vernacular in poems like “Perfect Through Five” where Sowers exultant voice animates descriptions of the game’s action:
“Hell yeah,” I thought,
“this was why
they drafted me.”
looked as big as
the horizon and I was
perfect through five.
Brightman also effectively employs the rhetorical devices of anaphora and epistrophe−repetition of phrasing at the start and ending of a line, respectively−blended with the first-person quote to reinforce the subject’s defeated and self-berating tone in “Like This”:
. . .
I could be 6-6. I could be 1-11
I could be anywhere between.
I could be a star.
I could be in Columbus
taking a bus.
I’ve never struggled
I’ve never been hit
I’ve never doubted
I’ve never stood
on the mound
like this. . .
Indeed, nearly three-quarters of the poems are persona, written from the pitcher’s alternately hopeful and hapless perspective. Another tight handful of poems blend poet’s and pitcher’s voices so seamlessly that narrator and subject become one. This is the greatest strength of In Brilliant Explosions: the poet aptly inhabits his subject, creates a credible voice that reveals the pitcher’s inner life, while making the game a palpable, dynamic and sensory-loaded experience. Brightman paints an intimate portrait of a player in the context of the great game of baseball. These poems move the reader−baseball fan or no−because they manifest the ambition and struggle of an everyman with a dream and a chance to live it.
What a great read In Brilliant Explosions Alone is. You really hit your stride with the language and rhythm of the poems, which enacted the struggle and loneliness of a person under great internal and external pressure to perform in the spotlight. A wonderfully intimate portrayal of Sowers, and also a great depiction of the game of baseball, which I happen to love, as well. What perfect timing that Night Ballet Press released the book mid-October, right in the thick of the World Series. As a reader, I could appreciate even more the baseball colloquialisms and calls and the rhythm of the announcer’s patter as I read through the book – straight through.
This is such a satisfying book of poetry for the quality of each poem individually and for how you stitched them into a such a well organized series, to create a narrative of this one player and a field-level depiction of the game. Why don’t we begin by talking about how the book is put together.
B: The collection is wonderfully unified and composed with a singular focus, which perfectly suits the theme of one pitcher, one season. I really loved that the poems are organized by game date versus page number, which lent to the sensation of travelling through an entire seven month season in the short space of 24 pages. Did the organization of the book precede the writing of the poems?
S: Yes and no. I wrote the epilogue shortly after I’d seen him with backpack at PNC. Once I decided to move forward with this as a collection, the organization dictated the production. I’d spent a lot of time on baseballreference.com poring over the box scores, trying to get a feel for each individual game.
B: I know that you’re a great baseball fan and undoubtedly have some real ball player heroes. I’m curious about your choice of Jeremy Sowers as a sort of protagonist/anti-hero in that particular 2008 Indians season.
S: I kind of stumbled across it in stages. It wasn’t a conscious decision to sit down and put him on a pedestal. I should start by saying that I’ve always been drawn to the anti-hero, so you can count that as the first stage: two of my favorite baseball players (Curt Flood and Roger Maris) were both maligned during their careers by the mainstream media and the public for one reason or another. The second stage was my general befuddlement at the relationship between Cleveland sports teams and their fans. Some guys become idols while others become afterthoughts and there seems to be no rhyme nor reason as to why. The final stage, the metaphoric straw, was seeing his game used jersey in the team shop for considerably less than other players’ jerseys. Heck, it was marked down cheaper than the manager’s and coaches’ jerseys. So I bought it. And kind of adopted him. Then I just had to figure out what to do with him now. Writing seemed like the most logical choice.
B: In these poems, Sowers is portrayed as both baseball pitcher and struggling human being; someone with a broad spectrum of feelings on and off the mound. Reading the book, I was continually impressed with how you captured that alternately lonely and lofty experience of the pitcher. How did you manage to step inside the imagined skin of your subject?
S: This was pretty easy. I’m a pretty big baseball fan, so the little boy inside of me still relishes the opportunity to see big league ballplayers in person (I hope I never outgrow that, FYI). One of the best places I’ve found to do this is at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Fans gather before the game outside the visitor’s entrance for similar type run-ins and photo/autograph opportunities. Ballplayers get dropped off by taxi or bus or whatever service their hotel provides outside the ballpark and a scrum of varying degrees ensues, usually depending on popularity (sought out by autograph seekers) or how good-looking a ballplayer is (sought out by girls of all ages). I was there before a game in which the indians visited the pirates a few years back and was part of the scrum. Everybody went ballistic over Grady Sizemore and Victor Martinez when they left their cabs. Jeremy Sowers, meanwhile, walked up to the park with his backpack on, completely unmolested. It was like he was just some random guy walking up to the park to catch the game. That had stuck with me ever since.
B: There’s a wonderful balance of pathos and restraint in these poems. On one hand, there are the numbers, baseball’s so amazingly abundant numerical data. And, on the other, the heart of the player. Did you consciously hold back or check your sympathetic response to Sowers by talking about speed of fast ball, field measurements, batting averages and so on?
S: Actually, I had to take a bit of the opposite approach if I wanted it to work on a personal level. I wanted to make it accessible to die hard baseball fans, but also casual fans (as well as those with little to no interest in baseball). I had to scale back my reliance upon the stats, rather than the man.
B: Most of the poems are persona, with Sowers relaying what’s going on in his head in the raw moment, as in “Empty Weird” or recollecting specific moments in the game, as in “This Is the One” (one of my favorites). I wonder why the intimacy of the persona poem, versus the straight narrative.
S: This kind of dovetails into my previous response. It was easier for me to access the man – Jeremy Sowers as Everyman, even – and avoid the clinical aspect of statistics through a persona. Statistics really only tell you about what happened, after the fact. They are their own narrative, so to speak.
B: The diction― the natural speech line, jargon―throughout is fantastic, reminiscent of the rhythm of the announcer’s patter. Did you deliberately fashion the lineation and cadence on how the game is called?
S: I did not. Over the last six or seven summers, though, I have spent a large part of my summers at games or watching and listening to games. March through October, baseball is pretty much the soundtrack of my life. I would have been more surprised if, upon completion, some of that cadence hadn’t seeped into my work.
B: Do you plan to write more books covering the life and times of one character? I hope so, because you have a real talent for lyrically hunker into a character’s psyche.
S: Funnily enough, I’d been mapping out the idea of a Lou Reed chapbook, which was inspired by “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, excepting Lou Reed will be my blackbird. The title, then, will be “13 Ways of Looking at Lou Reed”. I’d started it about a month before he’d passed. Now that he is no longer among the living, I feel a bit conflicted about continuing. I don’t want it to seem like I am being a parasite or an opportunist, so the release will have to be handled delicately.
B: On that same note, I wonder what inspires you to take up the proverbial pen―what form(s) does your muse take?
S: I don’t really have a muse. I don’t really search for inspiration. I just keep my eyes and ears open and write. That said, I do have a consistent and particular audience in mind when I write.
B: This is your fourth chapbook in less than two years time, which signals that there’s quite a lot in your creative hopper to write about! Please talk about your writing regimen and how you manage to be so prolific.
S: My writing regimen is pretty simple. I write every day. Literally, every day. Halloween was 1400 days in a row. It boggles my mind a bit when I think about that (and the accumulation of forgotten poems). Sometimes, I’ll participate in poem a day challenges in order to find prompts that I wouldn’t normally use to write, but most days I just sit down and write. Granted, my writing style (short poems, mostly) lends itself to that routine, but in a lot of ways that routine has also lent itself to my writing style. As I was telling another writer the other day, I tend to write near the end of the day. My body winds down and becomes tired and my mind is quite near the muddiness of sleep. It is also quite clean as, by this point in my day, I’ve managed to move past the events of the day. My writing happens in that area in between clean and muddy. Obviously, some evenings I’m not near my computer or able to write due to other commitments. On those days, I try to write first thing in the morning (before my day has a chance to fill with events that need to be shaken free) or whenever my schedule permits.
B: You have yet another book coming out in the near future, correct? Can you tell us about it?
S: I have been wrestling with the idea of a full length manuscript, but have not really applied myself to that too seriously. If and when I do that, I will probably self-publish unless someone out there with a specific idea (and the means to wade through/cull my body of work) wants to take the reins on that.
B: What projects are you currently working on?