The Athlete


Since I was 8, all I wanted in life
was to play centerfield for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Stepfather always punished me for doing well.
The better athlete I became, the worse the punishment.
He crippled me.
Ending it in near paralysis when I was 17.

Age 11, I was the only kid in the U.S.
who could drill the ball from the centerfield wall
in a professional park to the plate
on a single perfect hop, nailing the runner.

That summer, I played midget and junior legion ball.
Some of the guys in legion
were 19 and 20. I started and batted third.
In midget, I batted fourth. In both leagues,
we were state champions.

Next time I broad jumped, I leapt 19 feet 6 inches.
I was 12.
That same spring, I was the fastest 12 to 15-year-old
quarter-miler in the country, with a time of 
53 seconds flat.

From age 8 to 12, I boxed more than 100 fights
mostly against older boys, winning all the matches.

In gym class, at 16, I ran the mile once
–in tennis shoes
around the football field
in 4 minutes, 10 seconds,
probably a national record.
Nobody checked it out.
In full football gear, I punted the ball
50 yards, lofting it almost as high.


I became a poet
only when it was all that was left me,
except dying,
or giving into paralysis.

I didn't want to become a poet.
I should be wearing a world series 
championship ring, be in the hall of fame,
my ranch built for abused children and teens.

At 15, eight months before graduation,
stepfather made me quit school.

I lived in bushes and cardboard boxes.
Not expecting to last the winter,
I wrote my first poem A FALLEN MAN SEARCHING. 
I wanted to define myself
before I starved or froze.

I believed, as I do now,
poems should shatter the surface of reality,
give us a new reality.
But poetry lived in the past, ignored innovation,
human motives, secrets of the heart,
honest emotion, human need,
rewarded those who obeyed its archaic rules,
continued the hollow ritual of snobbery.


I've endured 30 years in a literature
whose bosses
would rather have me out of the way.

I've tried to broaden poetry,
tried to bring it up-to-date,
make it a little ahead of its time
like music and other arts
—watching it remain the spoiled brat,
the least of literature.
30 years being ignored.

If we don't give it a human, contemporary voice
it will become, like Native Americans,
a lost tribe, confined to isolated areas 
speaking entirely to itself.

excerpt from The Athlete. Copyright © James Humphrey Trust.


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