May 4, 2013

David Baker, "Old Man Throwing a Ball": a Homey Dialectic

As the title alone might suggest, David Baker’s “Old Man Throwing a Ball” offers warm, welcoming images, feelings, and ideas about humans, dogs, and spring. We see many reasons to like being alive in spite of the poem's honest awareness of how temporal those images are. There's an impressive, homey dialectic here, about life and death, order and wildness, and I’m glad for the poem’s company even though I have more questions about word choice than I usually do in a poem I admire. 

So, first, my reservations. Suspecting a typo for “lopes,” I had to look up the verb “lop,” which can mean to droop or to move awkwardly. I suspect it also plays on the more familiar “lope,” either of which could describe the dog’s motion in a way that makes him attractive, lovable, and sympathetic.

At the end of the second stanza, I struggle with the introduction of the old woman:  “Now his mother // dodders out, she’s old as the sky, wheeling / her green tank with its sweet vein, breath.”

I think she’s the old man’s wife, but then why “mother”?  If the man is already aged enough to stand “atilt” and earn the title of “old guy,” it seems unlikely that his mother—literally, his mother, not a wife as surrogate mother—is the second human character. I realize that some couples who’ve been married a long time refer to each other as “mother” and “father,” but here it’s the speaker who’s using that term of endearment, though he seems a stranger to both of the older people.  

I wrestled for a long time with the old woman’s “wheel”ing of a “green tank.” It must be an oxygen tank with its “sweet vein” of “breath,” but I wonder if that image and action could have been clearer. Are all oxygen tanks green? How many readers know that? Do all old women with oxygen tanks make a man turn to his dog for love? If so, does that fact make us squirm some?

Despite some metrical irregularities--which are more desirable than a cadence with military or nursery-school regularity--the poem walks by in a casual blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), so I wonder if Baker has forced some word choice to fit the meter. But David Baker is an eminent and contemporary poet; it seems unlikely he’d fall into that trap, so I’m trying to  assume that any miscommunication is my fault.

I’m a little uneasy with the cute poet-trick-word-play at the end of the fourth stanza and beginning of the fifth. The down-spread watering cans are followed immediately by “up,” which is the direction of the dog’s huffing. However, I love the brazenly lovable sweetness of the lab’s “mouthy ball.” Anyone who doesn’t is simply wrong—and perhaps not entirely human. So maybe it’s okay to lead into it with that play on Down and Up, with Up winning for now, though it huffs to do so.

Also, this curious juxtaposition of opposing directions is abrupt and self-conscious. It’s arguable that the sounds and meanings, especially across adjoining stanzas, further the quality of likability that informs the rest of the poem. Up and Down, we’re all in this together as we bounce along, more or less merrily.

My final question:  what does it mean to have antique watering cans that are “down-spread”?  Are the spouts tilted to the ground so that flowers reveal themselves in the holes at the tops of the cans?

I’m taking time to puzzle over all this because I very much like the poem as a whole. I like what it implies as well as its way of speaking. In spite of their age and creakiness, the characters and actions convey the season of spring, full of life and hope. Amid images of fading, I feel permitted to hope life will go on as long as the black dog keeps returning with his “mouthy ball.” The mythology, energy, and illusions of springtime promise that he’ll do it forever.

When Baker dares to declare, “These are the true lovers, / this dog, this man,” he’s knocking on sentimentality’s door. However, the statement is so hyperbolic, so seemingly outrageous that we can feel a touch of humor and irony in it, especially as they set the stage, more gravely, for the old woman with her green oxygen tank. The adage about dogs as man's best friend earns new meanings, new life. 

On the other hand, whether humorously or seriously, we might worry about the man’s preferring the dog to the wife/mother. Isn’t man’s connection to a wife and/or mother supposed to be the love story? But in this woman, there’s sickness and lurking mortality, while the dog offers not only the requisite unconditional dog’s love, but also an enduring image of vitality and action, even in old age. Maybe the man tosses the ball “even farther” after the dog "pees" because urination is a biological function, and biological functions echo our mammalian mortality. The dog’s peeing is a necessary pause in the thoughtless, epic ball-throwing marathon, which irritates and, perhaps unconsciously, worries the man. 

So throughout the poem there’s a tension, or dialectic, between chaos, vulnerability and mortality on the one hand and, on the other hand, order, affection and life. The old man is “atilt,” the black lab “lops,” the old woman “dodders” and “tips” down the path, and even the flowers “spill” from upside-down watering cans. Yet the old man is able to limber up and throw the ball still farther. The dog is indefatigable, and even the weakened old woman’s “green tank” has a “sweet vein,”—a reservoir of a bit more “breath” and a few more days or months.

The grass’s “rippling” strikes me as appealing and pretty, but it must go in the same worrisome column as the “wild elsewhere in our world.” Still, the man’s made a “path” for her there, and that path is “trim, soft underfoot.” The untamed and the comfortable are in a constant back-and-forth. The flowers spill, and the old man cannot name the third species of flora; so he relegates it to that same “wild elsewhere,” which he will one day “tend.”  (And what a magnificent, provocative phrase we’re given in a “wild elsewhere.” Are all our elsewheres "wild" by definition?). 

In Baker’s wonderful last line, that unnamed flower—wild and therefore chaotic—will nevertheless come when he calls for it. It will be tamed, like the dog or the “split rails” that are “docked” (like carefully arranged boats in a marina)  “along the front walk.”  In the yard “every inch” is “pruned” into “fine blossom” and made “miniature.” The stones are “set.”  Nothing is left to chance.

I hear echoes of Yeats’ fondness for manicured nature, as in “The Wild Swans at Coole,” rather than Wordsworth’s passion for mountains which are themselves passionate, full of winds and storms that both menace and instruct him. In Baker’s poem humans are engaged in a lovable effort to manage nature and wildness. That could easily be mocked as a sterile, mechanical, foolishly neoclassical, micromanaged scene; but Baker sees the humanness of it all and smiles. Man, “mother,” and dog will lose their struggle against chaos, wildness and death, but for the moment the speaker embraces them. Even in the lab's repetition of returning with the ball, we see a desire for harmony, order, affection. Throughout Baker's homey dialectic, the speaker himself becomes one more “true lover,” a benevolent sharer of a scene he’s tended for us.

Old Man Throwing a Ball by David Baker : The Poetry Foundation


Hannah Stephenson said...

Oh, I love David Baker's work. I agree about this poem being sweet (and almost dangerously sentimental), which I love. took the old woman to be the mother of the "old guy." She is as old as the sky (super old), whereas he is a little old, but limbers up quickly when he starts to throw the ball.

I don't know about down-spread...I can picture it. I think it's what you suggest, that they are tilted down.

The back and forth of this poem (about age, about playing catch and catch up, about homes and gardens and wildness).

If the woman is the man's mother, it's also a bit heart-breaking (and inevitable) to think of the child tending the ailing parent, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I will have to read this again, but I assumed the mother in question was an old lab and the mother of the agile dog. She's given up the games because agility has won over experience.

The last line is beautiful, the music and mystery of it.

Stickup Artist said...

I had an odd take. The poem made me think about how when people get old, their world starts to shrink. In this case, to the garden. And I think the garden, each other, the oxygen tank, and the dog are all karma. All-in-all, the two of them did pretty well over the long haul...

RuneE said...

I'm afraid that all I can add to this somewhat strange poem, is that oxygen tanks are white (at least in Europe, but it is an ISO-standard).

And, I too, felt that the mother was the dog's mother and the green cylinder a kind of dog's toy.

Ken Mac said...

Your photos are always poetic in themselves.

Back at my joint, the hotel is fairly gussied up inside now. Far different from a few years ago when a sign reading "if you don't return your towel we won't return your $5 deposit" stood in the lobby..back when hookers roamed the warf..

Stickup Artist said...

I forgot to answer your question about the color/lighting in my last post. The chapel is actually a beige color, but the late afternoon (after a winter storm cleared) light gave it that hue. A typical sunrise/sunset phenomenon for these parts as you noted.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Start talking to folks and your going to find that everyone knows or has 'a basement son.' The man who fails to launch and lives his life with his mother. I have one - my brother. And I've watched in wonder, these two characters. Then the animal they share. That gives both a certain focus. They both love the animal. Everyone has been domesticated, castrated and wild things are long gone.

Lovers' Lane