Book Review

In North American Stadiums, winner of the inaugural Max Ritvo Poetry Prize, Grady Chambers opens with a poem on resurrection. “A blessing can be the act / of invoking divine / protection,” he begins, trying to discern how the miraculous works. And then something unexpected happens: rather than pushing deeper into the biblical textures we’re accustomed to, we focus on a baseball game unfolding in front of us. We consider the day: the pinwheels and the pigeons we saw, and how, when “I’d pressed my back to the dark / damp wood of the trunk. / Yellow flowers fell on me.” In this moment, bathed in petals, we are transformed and reborn into the world. It is a miracle—one that is both beautiful and so ordinary, we nearly neglected to mention it.

Like this poem, much of North American Stadiums is interested in ordinary miracles. Throughout the text, we consistently attempt to redeem and resurrect figures, not so much to bring them back to life, but to move forward carrying their memories. Here and there, we remember dead dogs and friends who passed away. We get walking tours from ghosts and consider those killed in war. Resurrection, it seems, happens nearly every day, if only as a function of memory. In the tremendous poem “Bands You Might Have Liked If You Were Still Alive,” the speaker names a litany of bands (ranging from Wilco to Alice in Chains) that remind him of his deceased friend before returning, at last, to a scene from their past:

 . . . that’s how I remember you best: still with your kid-fat, your Little League tee,
our hands together on the spool: November
and letting it out, the kite’s slow rise, the crows flying by us: how you just
took over, walked off, left me at the park edge, followed that high stitch deep
into the field—

For a split second, we’re right back in that past with the speaker, though we don’t feel haunted exactly. Finding these ghosts is a good thing—we can understand who we are to them. Their memory carries us further into the future.

While we see several characters being resurrected throughout the collection, none are as significant as the speaker, who is reborn over and over again. “So many lives / seem possible,” Chambers writes in “Far Rockaway,” a poem in which the speaker watches a movie as a teenager and recognizes a life he desires for himself. He continues:

I was sixteen and my heart hurt
to watch it
it made me want to be older
and lonesome
with brown hair.

Potential for a new life is everywhere. One can always begin again, the collection indicates, and the possibilities are endless. “I think about that sometimes: / happenstance leading to a life; one set of faces replaced / by others,” Chambers writes in “A Story about the Moon.” Little moments can have big consequences. Even an act as simple as taking a different exit off a freeway could lead to adventure, to joy.

The “Stadiums” of North American Stadiums are everywhere. These spaces in which we watch other people live and work are as diverse as they are gorgeous. In “Forbes Field, Pittsburgh, 1966,” the speaker’s grandfather mythologizes the time he saw Roberto Clemente launch a game-winning home run—the crowd’s roar, the stadium’s rattle. Reliving this scene, we are convinced the stadium is indeed the glorious heart of the city. Similarly, in “Another Beauty I Remember,” the speaker studies the factories on Chicago’s South Side, marveling at the welders and the architecture: “[we drove] to peer down at the barge lights roaming the Calumet River, / then up to where the smokestacks of US Steel / rose like an organ in a church.” Even the apartment opposite the speaker’s—as in “The Window”—speaks to this desire to watch a life unfold and see if it holds some kind of subtle wonder. Chambers writes beautifully about place and takes the reader on a Whitmanian tour of the country to admire stadiums as well as the people who occupy them.

And while Chambers excels at writing about place, not all these poems are the traditional transcendental pieces one might expect. Chambers is able to quickly flip to a voice with a bite and a hook. In “Syracuse, October” for instance, the poem begins: “Fuck the hot autumns of Chareston, fuck handsome / Alabama, fuck the Deep South alcoholics // standing in flannel in the summer sun. I drove north.” Often, Chambers echoes poets like Philip Levine or Larry Levis by grounding his poems in grit and dirt. There is no doubt the world is worth praising, but it is still brutal. For every bucolic field, there is a plume of exhaust funneled into the sky. There are workers and there is work to be done. “The weather turned bad and I got happy,” the speaker states in “Sunday Morning.” These dialectic scenes where natural beauty is undercut in some way are often the places the book is most electric.

Just as the speaker cannot escape the harsh realities of the landscape, he cannot escape his past. It is everywhere and informs everything. In many ways, this is a nostalgic book—looking back and recalling old friends and scenes from childhood—but when Chambers hits the note he’s reaching for, readers are left in awe. In “Pin,” a poem in which the speaker reflects on the year his sister broke her arm, the piece ends with the two siblings dressed up in their attic, entertaining their mother:

She asked our names. We’d forgotten.
Stiff beneath the cloak, in its cast,
my sister’s arm looked thick as a statue’s.
When our mother asked us
where her children were,
we stifled our laughter.
We said, You have none.

In these moments, we come to understand how history rhymes. The children, claiming to be strangers, will grow up and start new lives. A son will protest a war like his mother had decades prior. Even the landscape with its bridges and boroughs carries its own past.

Grady Chambers has written an exceptional debut collection about miracles, memory, and wanderlust. Often it feels like taking a cross-country trip with the windows down: we see Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Iowa, and Milwaukee. We scour the country for places where our lives could begin next. But at its core, this is a book about love: how to recognize and give oneself over to it in any place. When asked whom he loves, the speaker takes in “the horseshoe shadow / of [his] arms [and proclaims] this, all of this.” Indeed, North American Stadiums is a lovely collection from an exceptional and promising voice.

About the Reviewer

Rob Shapiro received an MFA from the University of Virginia, where he was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize. His work has appeared in the Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Blackbird, and Prairie Schooner, where he was awarded the Edward Stanley Award. He lives in New York City.