Tarnished Trophies by Debbie Okun Hill
Black Moss Press, 2014 ISBN 978-0-88753-528-4 88-pages
In her first book of poetry, Canadian poet Debbie Okun Hill leaps from the bleachers into the light and shadow of the sports world. Mixed with the poetic portraits of sweat…the thirst for first…and the juicy taste of orange victory are the metaphorical snapshots of tarnished men and women, the unrewarded failures, and the need to reflect. Tarnished Trophies wrestles the athletic soul: this essence of winning and losing, loving and changing, growing and shaping.
SAMPLE POEM: “Spilling Warm Lemonade” – a Leaf Press Monday’s Poem
In these well-crafted, wide-ranging poems, Debbie Okun Hill introduces a variety of athletic disciplines, as well as touching on the seasons of both humankind and those of nature. Her poetry encompasses the joy of winning and the despair of defeat. Cheers and tears. But, always, the judicial use of original metaphors makes this collection a rewarding experience for the reader. There’s gold to be found here. Go for it! – Norma West Linder, Author of Adder’s-Tongues
As chair of the membership committee, it is my pleasure to offer you full membership in the League of Canadian Poets. We enjoyed your work for its sincere and original treatment of a winning theme – that of competition in sports and its relation to life’s enduring cycles and seasons. – Brian Campbell, Membership Chair, League of Canadian Poets, June 2, 2014
In a recent conversation former hockey player Wayne Gretzky — the Great One — is quoted as saying, “If I were playing in the NHL today …” and it is not difficult to infer a certain level of melancholic wishful thinking that must haunt almost every athlete no longer in his or her youthful prime. When poet Debbie Okun Hill dedicates her first full-length poetry collection with these words “for my athletic family …” one can expect a knowledgeable, respectful, serious consideration of the nature of sport, the value of competition, the thrill of play, and given her title Tarnished Trophies, the bittersweet glory days of the successful athlete. For it is time that tarnishes trophies, and trophies are both a true reminder of accomplishment and an ironic symbol of achievement in the past. Surely, being in the race, in the heat of competition, in the game and playing is the greater source of joy. Winning happens in an instant and that instant is fleeting and the glory short lived. Trophies are reminders and memory of youth is not the same as the exhilarating experience of being young and full of the energy and vigor and promise of youth. As though to confirm the fact that this book of sports poetry is about more than sports, it is also about the poet’s time-honoured concern with mortality, Okun Hill begins her opening poem with a race “waiting for the starting pistol’s/white puff of smoke,” and ends her last poem with this conclusion “somewhere lost in the heavens/the race continues”.
Like all of the best sports literature Tarnished Trophies, partakes in essential particulars with lines like “guzzle-gulped sports drinks,” and “Warm water/with a taste of salt,/these bodily fluids/ beaded dots on his brow” confirming a first-hand experience as a fully-engaged participant and as an observant spectator. Like the poet without a reader, the athlete without a spectator feels incomplete. And sometimes the spectator is a loving parent, sometimes a fan, sometimes an ice bunny, sometimes a collector of memorabilia, and sometimes the self, looking back on former glory, or the self, looking back on the overvaluation of athletic achievement and the undervaluation of other kinds of glory. In one particularly fine poem she writes of the asthmatic girl with “no home run, no medals in sight for her/not even a pat on the shoulder/ when she entered the spelling bee contest/ came home alone with a third place ribbon”.
And these poems are not without humour. Fragrant chewing gum is used to great effect as in the ending of the poem “Train Station,” “curled beneath a sports bench/coiled, thick wad, stale/ like his gum—stuck/with no place to go.” And the writer reminds us of our own youth perfumed by the “grape flavour released” by a wad of gum. And the bittersweet is not too sweet, not too bitter, if we’re still in the moment and being alive we might still “grab the handle bars/steer the shine/show the bright reflection/of life’s wet chrome” and ride.~ John B. Lee, Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity and Poet Laureate of Norfolk County (2011-2014)
Tarnished Trophies offers a tantalizing taste of Debbie Okun Hill’s unique talent and like fine wine should be savoured to appreciate her mastery of the written word. From Trip Diary—a clever piece—to Going Phishing, Her Last Play in the Soccer Game and the formidable At The Click of a Stopwatch, she invites you to embrace and relish her special gift.
In this, her debut book of verse, the reader finds a precise attention to detail—we know the devil is in the detail– that sharpens and focuses her writing. Whether through athletes, onlookers, or inanimate objects, Okun Hill’s images are astute. In Missing Mate, even a lost shoe springs to life through her perceptive eyes: his leather exterior/brown autumn decay/leaf caked mud on/tough white skin/all eyes open….
Her writing style is uncluttered with no word waste yet embellished with rich metaphors that paint a powerful image. For example, in Spilling Warm Lemonade, she presents the perfect picture of a routine action, sitting in a lawn chair: I remember sinking/soft slow slide/deep in summer’s/webbed chair/the way it cushioned/made crisscross imprints/on the back of my thighs…that later contrasts with latent anger: kicking your thoughts/against wooden fence.
Her attentiveness continues with her characters, like the lone fisherman in Engaged on the Shoreline: a bachelor, novice fisherman/sits engaged, complacent/meditating, un-groomed/brown hood like monk’s robe/pulled over his head….
Still, to isolate one poem without appraising another…and yet another… is difficult and unfair. Her verse deserves the reader’s full involvement. Many pieces by this accomplished Canadian poet have already won awards and contest recognition. – Heather Rath, writer, author, editor July 2014 (This review first appeared on Amazon.ca)
I am sitting in the gym of the University of Alberta, watching the 2014 Canadian Table Tennis Games. Between games, I open Debbie Okun Hill’s Tarnished Trophies. This is Mrs. Hill’s first collection of poetry. It paints a picture of the athletic soul through the light and shade of the sports world. Around me, I can hear the cheers near and far and ping pong balls bouncing back and forth. Her poems “It Starts Here” and “Hockey Parent Pilgrimage”, perfectly resonate with my memory of my son’s athletic journey. I still remember when we drove through storms to other cities for Ontario basketball tournaments. Like each athlete and parent in her book, we too have experienced the excitement of winning and the sorrow of losing, we have witnessed the players fighting through ups and downs between hope and despair, and “wondering how long this practice…will last” and where the “go-go-gold” leads… when “slithering snakes on patrol/ready to trip the weakest warriors”. This book not only visualizes the tough practice of both body and mind, but also reflects on the sacrifice of the family. An athlete’s journey becomes the whole family’s journey, full of sweat and tears, brimming with cheers and faith. From “Thirst for First” to “The Finish Line”, each mind races with ticks of the watch, each stretching with longing for every golden moment…yet there is silence falling “At the Click of a Stopwatch”, there is a dilemma to find an end at “This is Where it Ends”.
Debbie Okun Hill cleverly unfolds her poems in a reasonable sequence and groups them into three sessions: “Training”, “Building Muscle” and “Hitting Home”. It begins with “It Starts Here” and ”Thirst for First”, ends with “The Finish Line” and “This is Where it Ends”. In most of her poems, Mrs. Hill uses short lines with irregular meter and that pattern continues to the end which not only reflects the intense, dynamic and unpredictable outcome of the sports world, but also implies the demand for the persistence of athletic spirit for each sport. “So those who are last will be first, /and those who are first will be last.” The book Tarnished Trophies brings readers deep thoughts about what truly we look for from the sports world, what will last till the end and whether it is worthy etc. When I explore her poetic imagination and her probing mind, I watch out and think not only about my son’s games but also about what they lead to. – Anna Yin, author of Inhaling the Silence and Wings Towards Sunlight (This review first appeared on Anna’s Poetry Alive and was reprinted on Black Moss Press.)