~by English Department Communications Intern Ashley Alfirevic
Collectible trading cards, practice footage, and man-and-ball portraits currently occupy the walls of the UCA’s Art Gallery. “I just don’t get all the football stuff,” someone behind me murmured as an aside. Granted, we were all there to listen to David Baker’s prolific nature poetry and excerpts from his new book Scavenger Loop, so the works from “Scrimmage: Football American Art from the Civil War to the Present” did seem a little out of context. But I didn’t feel imposed upon by any of the hulking figures.
“We are in the presence of valuable art. Football art, but valuable nonetheless,” Camille Dungy joked before the presentation. “So please be careful and don’t cross the white line.” Everyone chuckled, but as both an athlete and a bookworm for most of my life, I always felt at odds with the ever-present tension between collegiate academia and collegiate sports. And though Baker’s poems had nothing to do with football, or sports for that matter, he somehow had a way of diffusing that underlying friction, his jocular and easy-going manner paired with a nimbleness and precision for language. “Buckeyes represent!” He called walking up to the podium. “I’m just going to shut up and read some poems.”
As he started reading his first poem, “Trillium,” and reached the line, “I cut it with my machete,” Baker burst into hysterical laughter, holding up his injured hand mid-gesture. “I didn’t do this with my machete. I’m going to have to start over now. It’s a serious poem, damn it!” And, in a seamless transition from the robust and hearty laughter, said, “By the way, trillium is a little flower. A very rare flower.”
As he read about shielding rare flowers from hungry deer, large wild cats hauling the carcasses of their prey, and bruising magnolia trees that have lost their way, their habitat stretched too far north, Baker both dissected language and brought it back to congruence in that way only poets can, erecting images of winter winds and scavenger lungs with chilly accuracy and warm affection. “I’m grateful to be here,” he said. “There’s so many sh*tty things we do to each other, so coming to a little room to sing to each other, that’s pretty great.”
Before moving onto one of his longer poems that heavily references the fanatic writings of John Clare, he said, “I brought a damn handout. This is so stupid. You’ll appreciate it though.” During Clare’s time in asylum, he developed a secret code exercised in some of his 3,000 letters and poems that he used to shield his writing from the doctors. “He took out all the vowels. Like they’ll never figure that out,” Baker laughed. The poem, “Five Odes to Absence,” weaves together lines from poet Clare, Twitter, and Baker’s neighbor Bernard, a young boy who plays hockey in the driveway.
His title poem, “Scavenger,” came about from an urge to take on agrichem giant Monsanto. “You know what GMO is backwards?” he asks. “I wrote that whole poem just so I could say that joke.” He says the poem turned from grinding a pedantic ax to mourning the loss of a nurturing figure after the death of his mother, becoming a pastoral elegy made from little shards of language, like a magpie nest. “I’ve always written about what grows outside. Poetry’s a useless art if it doesn’t have the ability to complain. It’s not a viable art if it can’t make its voice known.”
Baker’s poems carry an expert athleticism about them, natural talent combined with careful practice, ensuring exactness in the spiral of his language and in the force of a hard-hitting stanza. During the question and answer session, Baker suggested some reading, helping the audience figure out where to start with John Clare and where to branch out, beginning with the New Yorker. “I read this great poem the other day. It had a stupid title though – a sports title.”