Every single one of Mark Craver’s books is a machine of crushing beauty. Just about every poem of his that I’ve read is an almost unbearably honest re-structuring of human relationships—to others, to the natural world, to self, to history. His voice and his stories are so absorbing at times that it’s breathtaking to look closer and find a highly skilled technician at work, often with some very intricate, difficult forms without sacrificing function. His second book, aside from the proem and final piece, are all sonnets and sonnet crowns. There are letter poems, a sequence of abecedariums, sestinas, prose poems, a long poem that opens a book (a gutsy move) alternating between free verse and prose, and now, with Team First Team Last, a literally moving epic prose poem. The vehicle for the book, and the impulse behind it, is the Hayfield Hawks basketball team. Craver has taught English at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria, Virginia since 1985, and followed the Hawks as timekeeper, poet, and fan since 1991.
In the prologue, stressing the book as an epic poem, Craver tells us “The subject is the subject of all epics: language and the way we use it to record and absorb deeds of historical, national, religious, and legendary significance. The deeds stand by themselves like poles in the blacktop of history but it is in the saying of these deeds that they become true and real.” Nietzsche believed the true test of an artist is the creation of a “dream sphere” and Craver’s book is just that: in the telling and the reading, this story becomes real—I am enveloped in another place and others’ experiences each time I open the book. And it does seem to have a kind of swirl and blur to it since it is not a chronological narrative- time and place have been shifted around and sifted through in order to re-enact the true processes of memory. As for the epic-ness, he begins by invoking his muse: “I call on the ghost of Ronnell Felton to help me tell this story true and real, without ego. None of the names have been changed. These people said these words and did these things. That’s what they are.” This honesty, this gesture of honor, is an integral part of Craver’s voice and style.
Team First Team Last does have a recognizably classic symmetry. Bookended by a prologue and epilogue, and with an interlude right smack dab in the middle that begins “This book is finished”, its twelve chapters suggest the cycle of hours, months, and in this alignment with the passing of time, imply mortality. Ronnell Felton is the heart of this meditation on mortality and the passing kind of immortality found in a young person brimming with talent.
At one point, Coach Brian Metress (also the school’s Latin poetry teacher) says, “Bill Russell may be the muse of all basketball, but at Hayfield it’s got to be Ronnell Felton.” Later on, he tells Craver, “Ronnell Felton is Hayfield Basketball. It couldn’t be what it is without him.” According to Craver, “From 1991 to 2000, Hayfield posted a 182-56 win/loss record, an average of twenty wins a year in an eighteen- game regular season” and much of that is due to Ronnell and, later on, his brother Cornell. At one point, watching Ronnell play, Craver says “He is not playing a game so much as he is playing with his own joy through the game”-as if his joy was a tool he used to work on basketball, an instrument on which he played its music.
Ronnell develops lymphatic cancer and dies. Since this happens in the second chapter, the rest of the book is a kind of aftermath, but it’s neither a gush-grieving or false-ennoblement. What happens is the sport- games, practices, quick hallway or bus conversations, and the occasional post-game drink. The Hawks win, they lose, they struggle. Chapters devoted to games and practices embrace the speed, agility, precision and physicality of the game, becoming sensual experiences; there are also bits of practical “texts”-rosters, exercise scripts, practice outlines, thoughts and emphases of the day, drills, and pieces of Greek philosophy with Heraclitus and Metress’ own “tabula rosa” (blank slate) theory of foul-shooting. We see coaches’ devotion (Metress doesn’t get much sleep and admits he’s probably not a good teacher, father, or husband during the season), fans’ love, a family’s grief and move forward. It’s in these details, these fragmented, loving portraits that the book becomes both a kind of athletic and spiritual artifact.
There is an implied poignance, an explicit generosity in watching men teach boys about character through basketball, and a little philosophy. We see the men in service of the radiance of youth, and the boys as students of time and each other. In the epilogue, Craver realizes “the big fear is not death; the big fear is that I had become a high school English teacher”, but through the rituals of the game and its participants, and his meditation and re-membering of them, he learns “that being a high school English teacher is enough. It has always been enough.” He closes, or opens, “It’s not about basketball. It’s about the intensity of attention given by men of passion to boys desperate for that attention through a game that employs the hand, head, and heart to build something true and elemental: character. It is this character that I praise. What do we call that intensity of attention? That’s my song of love.” Metress believes “the only way to build character is through competition” and competition depends on a community, on a team, on the movements on a gleaming court.