Slam, Dunk, & Hook
by Yusef Komunyakaa

Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury’s
Insignia on our sneakers,
We outmaneuvered the footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
A high note hung there
A long second. Off
The rim. We’d corkscrew
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good
Intention. Bug-eyed, lanky,
All hands & feet… sprung rhythm.
We were metaphysical when girls
Cheered on the sidelines.
Tangled up in a falling,
Muscles were a bright motor
Double-flashing to the metal hoop
Nailed to our oak.
When Sonny Boy’s mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat, we jibed
& rolled the ball off our
Fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside, feint,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn’t know
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.

 

One of the first poems I had a real response to is Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Slam, Dunk, & Hook.” I read the poem not long after I’d graduated from riding the pine in high school to skipping class in order to play pickup ball in the Wildermuth Intramural Center at Indiana University. We read the poem in a class I didn’t skip, and even though I knew very little about poetry, the poem hit me like an anvil dropping in a cartoon. First I saw stars and planets, then the little canaries were singing circles around me.

What dropped the anvil: “We’d corkscrew / Up & dunk balls that exploded / The skullcap of hope & good / Intention.” The image took me back to Watkins Park in Indianapolis where I played ball in the daytime with my friends because it wasn’t safe to play at night. Komunyakaa’s images are so arresting because they utilize some of the most apropos verbs for the kinetics of basketball: “corkscrew,” “dunk,” and “exploded.” The poem reads like it was written by a basketball player. The language is that authentic.

There are other wonderful basketball poems out there with similar authenticity—B.H. Fairchild’s “Old Men Playing Basketball,” Major Jackson’s “Hoops,” and William Matthews’ “Foul Shots: A Clinic” all address the game with grace and consideration. But for me, Komunyakaa’s combination of hard rhythm and visceral imagery drops the mic and walks off the page.

Part of the poem’s success comes from basketball onomatopoeia. When the speaker says, “Nothing but a hot / Swish of strings like silk / Ten feet out,” the alliteration and assonance sound like a crossover dribble before a shot. The poem’s line breaks end in the same rhythmic satisfaction as fast breaks end. The similes approach the bucket from a different angle like reverse layups: “Dribble, drive to the inside, feint, / & glide like a sparrow hawk.” In other words, the poem is constructed like the game of basketball itself: tightly considered, open to improvisation, and full of sneakers and baggy shorts.

In his essay “Improvisation / Revision,” Komunyakaa says, “Poetry is an act of meditation and improvisation, and need is the motor that propels the words down the silent white space.” He could have replaced “poetry” with “basketball” and had a reasonable explanation of the game, as seen in “Slam, Dunk, & Hook.”

Basketball is true to the “act of meditation and improvisation” from the outset in images like “we could almost / Last forever, poised in midair / Like storybook sea monsters.” The “need” isn’t contextualized until the poem’s turn, though. As soon as the speaker says, “When Sonny Boy’s mama died,” the poem pivots from the physical to the hyperphysical. Basketball becomes catharsis, enabler, and healer.

Komunyakaa heeds John Wooden’s often-quoted advice and is (poetically) quick, but he doesn’t hurry to get to the turn. The turn’s success is predicated on the reader first understanding how chaotic and beautiful the game is, even though it is “[a]ll hands / & feet…sprung rhythm.” Once the action of the moment has been codified and the need of the moment has been verified, the last lines of the poem hit the game-winner:

Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.

After all, the poem isn’t really about the game of basketball, no matter how powerful and realistic the imagery might be. It’s about the players. The game in this poem is a stunt double for what it means to be a young man trying to find his place in this world while trouble is hanging around with a blackjack. Whether played on a hoop nailed to a tree, the side of a barn, or at Watkins Park in the daytime, basketball—or rather, the people who love and play the game—can be both “beautiful and dangerous,” often at the same time.

 

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Adrian Matejka is the author of The Devil’s Garden (Alice James Books, 2003), Mixology (Penguin, 2009) which was a winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series, and The Big Smoke (Penguin), forthcoming in 2013. He is the recipient of two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and fellowships from Cave Canem and the Lannan Foundation. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry 2010, Ploughshares, and Poetry among other journals and anthologies. He teaches creative writing at Indiana University Bloomington and co-directs the River Styx at Duff’s Reading Series.

Yusef Komunyakaa, “Slam, Dunk & Hook” from Magic City © 1992 by Yusef Komunyakaa. Reprinted with permission of Wesleyan University Press.

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