Boots, A Selection of Football Poetry 1890-2017 by Mark Pirie, editor.
Wellington: HeadworX (2017).
RRP: $30. Pb, 99pp.
Reviewed by Jeremy Roberts.
I was once standing in a kitchen inside a very poor working-class home in London, staring at an enormous framed colour photograph of footballer Wayne Rooney – frozen in the act of scoring a dramatic, crucial winning goal. For the home-dwellers, this was a moment that just had to be preserved – to access daily. The image captured an inspirational moment – one when everything you hope for happens. But there was far more to it than that: football – the ‘beautiful game’, is a way of life. Boots, edited by Mark Pirie, is a wide-ranging collection of poems (1890-2017) that serves to examine the reasons why football is followed so passionately by billions around the world.
There are poems here that explore the mental and physical side of the game, and poems that explore many other aspects that might be called sociological or historical. The important success of this publication is that you don’t have to be a fan to get a lot of enjoyment from reading these meaty, varied poems about football, and life. It is also a reminder to poets everywhere, that football (and sport in general) is a very worthy muse.
The first poem “Football” (by ‘anonymous’, 1923, p 14) makes a clear statement: ‘King of all the games that be, / Football is the game for me!’ (p 14) – aimed perhaps at children, but a truth nonetheless for all those aforementioned billions.
Dannie Abse’s “The Game” (p 15) is a poem about British football in the 1950s that describes the game as something far beyond the merely physical; there are other forces at work: ‘we are partisan who cheer the Good, / hiss at passing Evil. Was Lucifer offside? / A wing falls down when the cherubs howl for blood. / Demons have agents: the Referee is bribed.’ (p 15). Some might say that Maradona’s ‘hand of god’ goal is real-life proof of such forces.
Editor Pirie contributes several poems, including one he wrote for the Iraq football team, called “The Cup.” (p 68). The team have notably played well, despite a home background of war and civil unrest. Pirie convincingly makes the point that ‘Football is a game of love … homes around the world, / temporarily shutting out // the bombs, the missing limbs, / the screams of pain …’ (pp 68-69).
John Dickinson’s “The persistence of football results on Bealey Ave” (p 25) is a lengthy, thick political stew referencing tough, brutal times in Eastern Europe – class struggles, revolution, death, and grim jokes – life under the boot: ‘The times when you wouldn’t talk / to anybody who owed you an answer / because when you glanced at their eyes, / you’d see nothing but the cunning of the / completely defeated who could not only / use the people’s noose …’ (p 28). It’s like a powerful street corner rant, broken only by swigs of cheap Russian vodka, and it’s fun to imagine a plugged-in Dickinson bashing the whole thing out one intoxicated evening, with snow falling outside, and the furious clatter of the electric typewriter as it eats what feels like a Kerouac-style loop of paper. This a glorious cry from the (unforgotten!) proletariat. In fact – life as a car-crash / football match: ‘Škoda 2, Land Cruisers 0’. (p 30).
It’s no surprise that ‘walking football poem’ and outrageously gifted superstar George Best is a subject here. Best famously gave his own two-sentence bio: ‘I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.’ Without actually naming him, Harvey Molloy offers a view of Best’s intensely famous life and career that focuses on the tragedy and waste, in “The Footballer” (p 61): ‘the footballer regrets his transplanted liver … he never had to think but left thinking / to a body that could be trusted on the pitch …the footballer remembers / the nightclubs that never worked out / the months of missed practices abroad … snow covers the iron railings around the park.’(p 61).
Boots is certainly a winner here ‘at home’ and deserves to win ‘away’. Surely it will find an overseas audience. There are detailed acknowledgements to authors and editors and an informative preface by Pirie. Considering football’s rich history, and the fact that this book is only ‘the tip of the iceberg’, Boots II will hopefully appear in the near future.
Jeremy Roberts (Napier, Aotearoa NZ) MC’s at CAN Live Poetry; has performed poems with musicians in NZ, USA, and South-East Asia, taught Primary school children, and has been widely published. His collected works, ‘Cards on the Table’ was published by IP in 2015. https://www.facebook.com/Jeremy-Roberts-Poet