Micro-Review: ‘Wrestling’ by Jon Pineda

by | Aug 25, 2016 | Poetry

WrestlingWriters often find themselves in the unenviable position of actually trying not to forget high school, because surely, all that moodiness, acne, and sexual frustration must be malleable enough to hammer into some damn good poems.  That’s tough, though.  If you’re a writer (and if you’re reading this, I bet you are), you probably had one or two encounters with bullies who swaggered through hallways and shopping malls like army vets, trailing gym sweat and gay jokes. 

For the reader as well as the writer, then, revisiting this can be a bit like returning later to the scene of a crime after many years, only to find that the killer has built a shack out in the open, waiting for you.  But poetry, like life, was never intended to leave us unscathed.  Enter, Jon Pineda.

Pineda’s poem, Wrestling, is a risky, fabulous piece in which the narrator finds himself on a high school wrestling team, pitted against the very same bully who randomly tormented him years before, punching him while “a few of the boys pinned [the narrator’s] shoulders against a tree” near “a man-made lake separating the neighborhood/in two.”  Yet now, in as visceral a scene as any I’ve ever read, the narrator find himself on the mats “in front of everyone,” pinning the bully and locking “a breath inside his throat” while the clock runs out.

Every time I read this poem, I feel a rush of primal satisfaction at seeing a bully get his just desserts. I feel vindicated somehow for every time I backed down—or didn’t, and lost.  But then, I find myself reining that in, rereading Pineda’s description of a bully who could have been his brother, “his hair the same/coarse black strands, his face filled with shadow.”

And suddenly, what might otherwise be a satisfying but simple poem takes on a remarkable turn; on some level, the two opponents become mirror images of each other. I find myself pitying the bully while simultaneously cheering on (yet almost admonishing) the narrator. The result is a kind of temporary metaphysical schizophrenia, akin to what happens when one contemplates a Zen koan and through seemingly senseless contradiction, catches a glimpse of some larger, inexpressible truth.

Like so many of the poems in Pineda’s book, Birthmark, this one resonates with an economy of language that is both elegant and taut, not to mention a generous accessibility that is refreshingly free of pretension.  In that way, this poem in particular is a textbook example of how to take a seemingly straightforward scenario and infuse it with additional layers and energy, a haunting power that tattoos the subconscious of everyone who was ever shoved against a locker.

Rereading Pineda’s poetry reminds me of this interview with Phil Levine in which, with humor, bluntness, and vulnerability, Levine describes the charge he gets out of reading poetry and how he can’t find that anywhere else. The process of alchemizing that energy out of ink and plastic keys is a tricky business, though, and the human ego is at least one of the beasts that must be wrangled along the way. That’s why I’m always telling my students to avoid the understandable desire to make themselves the hero of their own poems.

Put another way, it takes guts to scrutinize ourselves—to write our own wrongs—rather than simply focusing on how we stand affected by the world. Pineda is able to engage in that level of self-scrutiny.  By fusing sadness with the primal joy of revenge, he both celebrates and admonishes the human condition.  And it doesn’t hurt that he’s as entertaining as hell.

by Jon Pineda

Before the season, we were already pissed,
our bodies tightening around ribs, our eyes,
like panthers, sinking into shadows.

We had given up food, sweat until
the air around us was heavy. The only thing
we cared about was winning.

At our first match, I wrestled a guy
I had met summers ago at a Filipino gathering,
some first communion or baptism.

By a man-made lake separating the neighborhood
in two, where most of the children had wandered,
a few of the boys pinned my shoulders against a tree

while one punched me. I could say it was because
I was only half, a mestizo, but that would be too easy.
We were just boys, happy in our anger.

When they let me go, their eyes clouded as the lake,
I didn’t say a word. Years later, when I pulled
the one who had punched me down on the mat,

I watched the clock as I locked a breath inside his throat.
He could have been my brother, his hair the same
coarse black strands, his face filled with my shadow.

I held him there in front of everyone.

About The Author

Michael Meyerhofer

Michael Meyerhofer’s fifth book, Ragged Eden, was published by Glass Lyre Press. He has been the startled recipient of fourteen national writing awards including the James Wright Poetry Award, the Liam Rector First Book Award, the Brick Road Poetry Book Prize, and several chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry, Rattle, Brevity, Ploughshares, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and other journals. He is also the author of a fantasy series. For more information and an embarrassing childhood photo, check out his website.

Books by Michael Meyerhofer

Michael Meyerhofer

Michael Meyerhofer

Michael Meyerhofer