Life After Rugby
by Eileen G'Sell
Gold Wake Press, 2017
Review by Joe Sacksteder
I have a feeling that Eileen G’Sell could give us a good idea why the young Joan Didion found John Wayne so much more fascinating than Joan Baez or Michael Laski. Her powerful debut poetry collection, Life After Rugby, brings together an ensemble cast of Americans—Mike Tyson, Sigourney Weaver, Clint Eastwood, Laura Ingalls, Whitney Houston—to attest to the remaining need for resilience and toughness in an age that’s proving traditional notions of masculinity so destructive. It’s a collection that’s interested in power, in reminding readers that not all power is inherited, that Darwinian competition isn’t just an excuse for cruelty but also a fact of life we have to deal with as terrestrial creatures.
“I want to tell you all about power,” one poem’s speaker defends their preference for Sigourney Weaver’s character over Melanie Griffith’s in Working Girl. “Do you know what it means to work? Can your shoulders save the planet?” The poem “Ode to Clint Eastwood,” suggests that we’re allowed to take what we find compelling from fraught public figures rather than simply categorizing everyone as lost or found: “Clint, your very name / sounds like scowling at the sunset. // Do I feel lucky? Only if you do.” All the while, the collection never loses sight of power’s consequences, when the collateral damage is suddenly one’s own body, as in G’Sell’s elegy for Whitney Houston. “What is it then to be on fire, to rocket // lucky forward?” the poem asks, complicating Clint Eastwood’s most famous line. “Your sweat, your smile, you’re always always // never, all at once.”
These homages and cautionary tales coalesce around the collection’s unexpected driving metaphor of the athlete, the ways in which runners, boxers, and rugby players in particular can be used to make tangible the artistic, professional, and interpersonal gauntlet of one’s early adulthood. Let me be clear that these references make only fleeting—but important—appearances, that they are not explicated to a degree that could make them come across as overly familiar. Rugby, in fact, is only directly or indirectly referenced in the title poem, a seven-part stunner that is the longest poem in the collection and its most ambitious meditation on the steadiness with which we must meet the fluctuations of life:
To have won and lost, to have watched
and learned the ropes up which daredevils climb,
of which neighbor girls go skipping ahead as though
their lives depended on it, to then waste one’s day,
one’s valid ticket, on the leanest bite of woe? “Whatev,”
she said, and cocked her head, exonerating no one.
The title of this poem makes conspicuous an absent presence in the text and provides a cypher through which to read its disparate contents. And it’s a complex phrase, “life after rugby.” If you’ve ever been to a country in love with the sport, you learn quickly how to spot the veterans. Their bodies are absolutely trashed—not that they look too upset about it. “There’s nothing more deadly and proficient,” G’Sell reminds us via a Mike Tyson epigraph, “than a happy fighter.” The poems’ glimpses into everyday hardships and heartaches thereby open up an intimate connection between the muscular and emotional. This will pass, we were told, of our adolescent operas. But what happens after “the handsomest months of a life” are over, and we realize that we’ve just reached the end of act one?
These poems, fully awake to life, maintain a tension between opacity and utterance, the synaptic plunge into personal anecdote and the reminder of universal conflicts and sensations, the revitalization of well-worn turns of phrase (“a run for your money”) and the creation of new maxims adequate for today’s terrifying world (“There are many truths / with which to wage war on the world / unjustly”), the fierce necessity of independence and the openness to someone worth fighting for. G’Sell has an ear for times when the short, end-stopped line packs the needed punch, as in the opening poem, “Follow the Girl in the Red Boots,” versus when we must succumb to the reckless inertia of a line, as in “Drive”:
This leather and heat and soft
seat wishing this rain and a midday singing so long this
more than 3,000 miles more than Alaska more than my
mother this drivetrain talent for transaxle searching this
engine turning and turning again this torque approach to
front-wheel living I was never your slushbox beautiful
nothing I was agency movement clutch clutch clutch I was
500 hp gold and you know it the place it was I came from
on that deathless night I came.
The seemingly dissonant cover image of a blithe dancer in point shoes combined with the savageness of rugby strikes another tension G’Sell will maintain throughout the book, an investment in traditionally feminine interests and iconography paired with a refusal to let masculinity subsume its usual codes, resulting in a text that throws into flux imaginary discrepancies between the feminine and masculine.
G’Sell has been kicking ass for years on the sites of Salon, Vice, and The Rumpus, always championing feminism and always, always remaining vigilant for thought patterns or trends that betray any measure of thoughtlessness, even if they support worthwhile causes. “Unmask my pet illusions,” the speaker of the Mike Tyson ode pleas, echoing an earlier poem that, through subtraction, revealed the similarity between pet and poet. “Devastate the world.” Life After Rugby shows that the common denominator of life is struggle, but that a sense of grit and grace allow it to be choreographed with a flair.