The Taking Part: Joe Williams, Maytree Press
This short collection by Joe Williams comes with an evocative cover image by Walker Scott. In a Lowryesque scene in a back street a hunched figure passes by while two youngsters play football, the goal chalked on a wall. It’s a wonderful cover, and sets the scene for these wry and whimsical poems about sport and games in many different forms.
In ‘Reasons Why Your Team Lost’ Williams examines the superstitions of sport, from drinking in cracked mugs or the number of shredded wheat consumed, to shaving or not shaving, or the way you cleaned your teeth. (For myself and my footie pals of so many years ago, it was whether the tide was in or out as our District Line train crossed Putney bridge. I can’t now remember which was the good omen, and which the bad). The poet concludes with this vital question: “Are you – and this is the most important - / wearing your lucky pants?” A poem that should appeal to and be recognised by many.
Failing at sport shouldn’t be, but can be traumatic. Williams writes at some length about being a member of the University of Leeds Bowling Society, although he was not being very good at tenpin bowling (‘Tenpin Trilogy’).
There is also the element of fantasy in sport, not least when the poet ventures into outer space to imagine a football mishap inside a space capsule:
No one could have predicted
the ball would hit the airlock button,
just when Barry was leaping up,
trying to stop my rocket blast,
straight to the top left corner.
(‘Penalty Shootout in Zero Gravity’)
A space oddity, indeed.
‘Jackpot’ is a love poem to a pub quiz champion, while ‘Red Square’ records a triumphant moment at Scrabble, when the protagonist opts to change his tiles when 60 points behind, as it were, only to succeed with ‘ANUS’ on a triple word square.
‘Results’, on the other hand, lists moments when football, the beautiful game, has ended in tragic disaster - sometimes when it has barely begun, as at Hillsborough. It’s what the poem doesn’t say, that gives it such power.
A number of these poems have previously been published, in magazines, or, as in the case of ‘Third Slip’, in the Pocket Poetry Book of Cricket (Paper Swans Press). Together they form an impressive line-up, and support the case for The Taking Part as a worthy addition to the canon of sporting poetry.