Debbie Okun Hill
Black Moss Press, 2014, 88 pp.
Review by John B. Lee
In a recent conversation former hockey player Wayne Gretzky — the Great One — is quoted as saying, “If I were playing in the NHL today …” and it is not difficult to infer a certain level of melancholic wishful thinking that must haunt almost every athlete no longer in his or her youthful prime. When poet Debbie Okun Hill dedicates her first full-length poetry collection with these words “for my athletic family …” one can expect a knowledgeable, respectful, serious consideration of the nature of sport, the value of competition, the thrill of play, and given her title Tarnished Trophies, the bittersweet glory days of the successful athlete. For it is time that tarnishes trophies, and trophies are both a true reminder of accomplishment and an ironic symbol of achievement in the past. Surely, being in the race, in the heat of competition, in the game and playing is the greater source of joy. Winning happens in an instant and that instant is fleeting and the glory short lived. Trophies are reminders and memory of youth is not the same as the exhilarating experience of being young and full of the energy and vigor and promise of youth. As though to confirm the fact that this book of sports poetry is about more than sports, it is also about the poet’s time-honoured concern with mortality, Okun Hill begins her opening poem with a race “waiting for the starting pistol’s/white puff of smoke,” and ends her last poem with this conclusion “somewhere lost in the heavens/the race continues”.
Like all of the best sports literature Tarnished Trophies, partakes in essential particulars with lines like “guzzle-gulped sports drinks,” and “Warm water/with a taste of salt,/these bodily fluids/ beaded dots on his brow” confirming a first-hand experience as a fully-engaged participant and as an observant spectator. Like the poet without a reader, the athlete without a spectator feels incomplete. And sometimes the spectator is a loving parent, sometimes a fan, sometimes an ice bunny, sometimes a collector of memorabilia, and sometimes the self, looking back on former glory, or the self, looking back on the overvaluation of athletic achievement and the undervaluation of other kinds of glory. In one particularly fine poem she writes of the asthmatic girl with “no home run, no medals in sight for her/not even a pat on the shoulder/ when she entered the spelling bee contest/ came home alone with a third place ribbon”.
And these poems are not without humour. Fragrant chewing gum is used to great effect as in the ending of the poem “Train Station,” “curled beneath a sports bench/coiled, thick wad, stale/ like his gum—stuck/with no place to go.” And the writer reminds us of our own youth perfumed by the “grape flavour released” by a wad of gum. And the bittersweet is not too sweet, not too bitter, if we’re still in the moment and being alive we might still “grab the handle bars/steer the shine/show the bright reflection/of life’s wet chrome” and ride.
To order your copy, send $20 ( $17 + $3 p & h) to Debbie Okun Hill, 6731 King St., RR #2, Camlachie, Ont. N0N 1E0.
~ John B. Lee is Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity and Poet Laureate of Norfolk County (2011-2014)