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Hockey, hockey

In defence of the sestina, part 2

Once in a while, for no reason at all, these lines go through my head:

Call me Zamboni. Nights my job is hockey.
I make the ice and watch the kids take slapshots
At each other. They act like Esposito.

They are the first three lines of a poem called ‘Rink Keeper’s Sestina: Hockey, hockey’ from a 1980s-era textbook for American high school students. The poem’s author is George Draper. I have never been able to find out anything about George Draper except that his ice hockey sestina first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1975, in the same issue that ran a poem by Donald Hall. Draper doesn’t seem to have published any poetry collections, and I have never seen a poem by him aside from this one.

Although I have long parted with that high school textbook whose title I can no longer remember (though I recall it had a hard green cover and also featured ‘Spring and Fall’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins) I recently found Draper’s poem online in a Word document posted by an American teacher at an unnamed US high school. Here is the sestina, in full:


Rink Keeper’s Sestina: Hockey, hockey

Call me Zamboni. Nights my job is hockey.
I make the ice and watch the kids take slapshots
At each other. They act like Esposito,
As tough in the slot as Phil, as wild with fury
In fights. Their coaches tell me this is pleasure.
But it isn’t pleasure. What it is, is Hockey.

Now let me tell you what I mean by Hockey.
I mean the fights. I mean young kids in fury,
And all these coaches yelling for more slapshots.
I tell you, blood is spilled here. This is pleasure?
It seems to me the coaches should teach hockey
Not how to act like Schultz or Esposito.

Look, I have nothing against Phil Esposito.
He’s one of the greats, no question, it’s a pleasure
To watch him play. My point is, why teach fury?
If I know life (at least if I know hockey),
Then fury’s here to stay. We don’t need Hockey
To tell us that, we don’t need fights and slapshots.

Like yesterday. I heard a coach yell, “Slapshots!
Take slapshots, son! You think Phil Esposito
Hangs back? and hit! And hit again! That’s hockey!”
But he was wrong. The kid was ten. That’s Hockey.
You could tell the boy admired his coach’s fury.
It won’t be long before he hits with pleasure.

Sure, I’m no saint. I know. I’ve gotten pleasure
From fury, too, like any man. And hockey
At times gets changed around in me to Hockey.
I’ve yelled for blood at Boston Garden. Slapshots?
They’ve thrilled me. I’ve seen men clobber Esposito
And loved it when he hit them back with fury.

But you know what? Before these days of fury,
When indoor rinks were just a gleam in Hockey
Fanatics’ eyes, there was no greater pleasure
Than winter mornings. Black ice. (Esposito
Knew days like this as a boy.) Some friends. No slapshots,
But a clear, cold sky. Choose teams. Drop the puck. Play hockey.

Yes, before big Hockey (sorry, Esposito),
Before the fury and all the blazing slapshots,
We had great pleasure outdoors playing hockey.


I suspect the editors of the textbook chose this poem because they felt it might go over well with the ‘jocks’—an American term for high school athletes—and not because it is the most elegant, tidy or stylish sestina that has ever been constructed. But I fell in love with this poem.

Coincidentally I was also in love with the star ice hockey player at my school. So when Mr B, our English teacher, asked our class to map out the sestina form using this Draper poem as a model, the poem’s trustworthy Zamboni-driving narrator—with his appreciation of kids, poetry and ‘hockey’ with both a capital and a lowercase ‘h’—seemed like the perfect conduit between my world (sensitive, arty outsiders) and the world of my beloved Hockey Player (tough, popular jocks).

My Hockey Player would not love me back, alas. I now believe that the playwright Neil LaBute, whose dramas of human callousness include In the Company of Men and Fat Pig, probably got his inspiration from the corridors of American high schools, where there can be a striking absence of empathy. Once my Hockey Player got wind of my crush, he subjected me to a public practical joke in which he pretended to fancy me; and then, when he began dating the pretty and popular girl who is now an anchor for an American TV news network famous for promoting conservative political positions, would wait until I passed him in the corridor, snog her dramatically, and they would both laugh.

I may not have seduced my Hockey Player, but I had been seduced by that hockey sestina: a window into a world where primal instincts for cruelty and violence are transformed and tamed in an ice rink (or perhaps a poem). The speaker says, ‘I’ve gotten pleasure/From fury, too, like any man…/I’ve yelled for blood at Boston Garden.’ It was a world I couldn’t relate to, but I almost understood it through the eyes of this narrator who, while observing an aggressive realm from his ‘Zamboni’ (or ice-cleaning machine), seemed part avuncular poet and part macho jock.

Although the sestina gets slightly stuck and repetitive at times, it basically has motion and verve. Like the kids taking ‘slapshots’ at each other, the 5-stress lines move with energy, purpose and surprise. The rhythm is catchy; the voice is appealing; the tone is casual and familiar.

Twenty years later, when I finally attempted a sestina of my own, I knew I wanted it to have the speed and conversational quality of this hockey sestina. I also wanted to mention a sport (hurling). And I borrowed Draper’s phrase from the middle of stanza three, ‘My point is…’

In those ways I paid homage to the first sestina I read and loved.

Although this poem felt a little dated even in the late ‘80s when no one but a diehard hockey fan would know who Phil Esposito was, I like it even now. Sometimes a poem need not be perfect to enrich your life.

Hoping it might enrich the life of the Hockey Player, too, I copied it out in my best, smallest handwriting, folded the paper many times, and dropped it through one of the vents in his locker. Later that day I found it on the corridor floor, crumpled and torn. No doubt he hated sestinas.


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