Today’s poem begins with its title borrowed from a line in “Decrescendo” by Larry Levis (from Winter Stars) and swerves at one point for a cameo by Phil Levine. I gesture here to things he’d said both in a workshop I took with him and, of course, in interviews he did. He received some blowback from folks in Fresno for it at the time, too, which is sad to hear because his thoughts on failure and Fresno and its writers—he was offering his clear-eyed praise.
I hope, as ever, that this poem proves worthy of your time.
I’m going to say a thing that some don’t want to hear.
And then another that others will balk at. And still
another, followed by the undeniably true.
Ichiro is the greatest hitter to have ever stepped into the box,
with four thousand three hundred and sixty-seven hits
spread out over twenty-eight professional seasons.
Yeah, sure, Pete Rose gathered more walks, but
he also stood at the plate five hundred more at bats,
and his own charge that no one should count
the nine seasons Ichiro played pro ball in Japan brings us
face-to-face with vanity, pride, hubris, at best, though
if we search further, prejudice, nationalism, racism.
I’ve sat in the Tokyo Dome, home of the Yomiuri Giants,
and I’ve watched foreign players strike out, watched them
return to the dugout same as any in New York or Boston
or even Cincinnati. Groundouts, flyouts, popups caught
in foul territory. The same. What’s uncomfortable,
what we don’t want to deal with outside of the diamond
is failure. The thing Ichiro is a master of. The kind of failure
Philip Levine recognized and praised in the writers
from Fresno, where I come from, the San Joaquin Valley, the way
we live with failure. Our lives steeped in its expectations.
And how we learn from it. Our resolve in the face of it.
Of the thirteen thousand five hundred and fifty-three times
Ichiro stepped to the plate, the game set him back down
eight thousand one hundred and fifty-five times. Imagine that.
If there’s one thing the game has taught me, and if there’s
one thing I’ve learned from Ichiro—
it’s that our relationship to the process of failure
widens our understanding of the probable, the possible,
that strange and delicate landscape of the profound.