John B. Lee, You Can Always Eat the Dogs: The Hockeyness of Ordinary Men. Windsor, Ontario: Black Moss Press, 2012, 88 pages. Reviewed by Dr Don Morrow, Western University Canada, London, Ontario, Canada.
John B. Lee is no stranger to the world of sport literature and to members of the Sport Literature Association. Lee is an award-winning poet and writer (and according to his business card and website, he is also an instructor, researcher, songwriter, and performer) and the poet laureate of Brantford & Norfolk County, Ontario, Canada. A prolific poet and writer with some 60 books to his credit, I relish 3 lines from one poem as emblematic of his word-athleticism: “When Wayne Gretzky went to L.A./my whole nation trembled/like hot water in a tea cup when a train goes by” (The Trade that shook the Hockey World in The Hockey Player Sonnets, 1991).
You Can Always Eat the Dogs is a unique perspective that reflects one man’s love for playing hockey, at least on its icy surface. Like most forms of sport literature, this book is less about playing hockey than it is about writing about playing hockey. To paraphrase, borrow, and bastardize Yeats, how can we know the player from the game, the wordsmith from his words. For example, I get the eat-the-dogs’ title, an allusion to Roald Amundsen’s stated nutritional intentions, if required, on his expedition to the South Pole in 1911 and acknowledged as such in Lee’s prefatory quotations. And on page 87, in a kind of requiem to all old-timer, recreational league hockey players – the “ordinary men” of the subtitle – Lee infuses the title into that time when a player realizes the game can’t love him the way he loves the game and the player must ‘eat the dogs’ and retire from playing the game. And, it can symbolize the option of choosing to play the game, with all its foibles, until well into older ages, or spectate and eat the hot-dogs and maybe other signifiers too. For me, the Amundsen allusion and its application is interesting but loses something in being brought front-and-center to the title and especially to the bright yellow, front cover wherein an embossed hot dog image – something, for me, more ballpark than arena-associated – underlines the titular word, ‘Dogs.’ If we were to judge a book by its proverbial cover, this one perplexes me and leads me to wonder, what would compel someone to pick up this book, let alone read it. And yet, this book is rich in its insights and warrants reading whether or not you know hockey and/or eat the dogs.
Lee’s book is divided into 2 parts, ‘born to the sign of the rain’ and ‘have you ever heard of a game called shinny.’ Each part contains 15 and 22 sn/lap shots about Lee’s hockey experiences, reflections, and enamoured expressions of love for his game. Some 6 or 7 of these short essays have been previously published. His prefatory poem, ‘that sign of perfection,’ gives a sense of a universal acknowledgement to any and all persons who have touched or been touched by hockey; however, The Dogs is a very personal kaleidoscope of the meanings of his hockey to John B. Lee. Readers, presumably, are left either to ingest/digest Lee’s re-memberings and/or to see themselves in his mirror. I often wonder if we, as writers think about our intended impact or have a vision for what we intend readers to garner from our prose. How, for example, do we make the written word relevant and for what intended audience? Regardless, Lee unobtrusively invites us into his formative family hockey culture “Saturday night…a night for buttered popcorn popped between periods [of Hockey Night in Canada] in a black-bottomed frying pan, and a single glass of Coca-Cola served on ice in faded green aluminum drinking glasses that were chill to the touch”(20). He introduces readers one of his teams, the Skatin’ Skolars (a team of teachers), eruditely careful to add the Latin adverb ‘sic,’ in brackets, after the team name, and I wonder for whom he did so.
As readers continue through the vignettes, we learn about thumbs bloodied from fervent playing of table-top hockey games in Lee’s youth; slew foots, hooking, and other hockey tactics that border on the unethical and hockey’s darker arena of boorish behaviours; the inevitable nicknames that unfold in all sport and all levels – Mad Dog, the Claw, Woody, Frying Pan, Scooter, Fat Boy, Bondo etc.; Lee’s self-deprecating descriptions of his perceived less than average hockey skills except for a repeated assertion that “I can still skate backwards as fast or faster than many of my fellow players.” John’s ordinary hockeyness even plays out in a wish-fantasy that someone might mistake him for the best hockey player in the world, “the guy who writes poetry when he has nothing better to do with his time” (88). It is Lee-the-poet’s words that make this book endearing to me. From whom else could we learn that for John, being stripped of the puck by a defensive player could be encapsulated in an agricultural simile, “I’ve been stripped and withered like a lonesome tobacco stem after a killing frost” (41). In what rink literature could we be exposed to words like “bellwether,” “dithyramb,” “clapperdudgeon,” “apotheosis,” and “spicules of sharp shards,” to cite only some examples of Lee’s vernacular. Who else could take us into a sense of frozen water with “the fragrance of ice” (68) or “I have stood upon the sturdy vault-thick ice of a frozen bay and seen the skate scarring of that snowy surface, that white scrimshaw looping out like the trace lines of a much copied-over napkin” (46).
For me, all of Lee’s word-agility makes this book burst with sensual appeal, that element of sport rarely mentioned, not noticed by men or not felt by men playing sport, or at least cleansed, Zamboni-like from more common epithets around winning and ‘scoring’ (“what Don Cherry might call…his notions of real men” (53). Consider one example, goalie talk when goalies change ends and meet at centre ice in rec hockey when one team scores five goals: “It’s private. Not to be shared. It is, I suspect, untranslatable. Like Basque, the language with no other common lingua franca, no shared roots, no sister tongue, this goalie talk, mystical babel with the power of supernatural sayings….This centre ice world where words have the power to make things happen. Where saying it is so, makes it so. Goalies are different….” (58). In short, Lee brings his vast vocabulary – what he calls in one story, “the vocabulary of water” – to get at the meanings and feelings of hockey. The key to reading this book and appreciating what and how Lee writes comes two-thirds of the way through The Dogs when Lee reflects that, “I recently witnessed the upside-down flight of two Canada geese flying topsy-turvy in a chevron coming in for a landing on the lake” (65). Later, he discovered that the word for this tendency among waterfowl is whiffling. Symbolically, it is the word itself that elates Lee, “it’s the word whiffling that gives the action its deeper thrill. My very mind is whiffling within me as I write” (67). Even more, his “unending delight for the poet in me who loves the words even more than the things that they describe” (67) reveals his modus operandi and voluptuous vocabulary. Ay, there’s the Lee-rub. “I like the word Chicago” (80) he tells us. Lee is a wordsmith who brings a treasure of insights to the ordinary game of hockey as he experiences it, feels it, loves it, and cherishes even the dogs. Read the book for the hockey but most of all read the book for the writing and Lee’s craft.