Sport and Prose in Kerry Howley’s Thrown

Howley7Thrown
by Kerry Howley
Sarabande Books, Oct. 2014
288 pages / $15.95  Buy from Sarabande Books and Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had no sight into Daisy’s heart, but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Gravity forgot me. I was the goalie in a pick-up soccer game in high school. My friend kicked a beautiful curling shot from just beyond the eighteen meter line; a quality of kick that elicits sharp breaths from attentive spectators. I jumped, deflected the shot over the cross-bar, and then. I was just. In space. Weightless. Drifting. Orientationless. Or rather, what orientation I had shuffled realms of sensing, considered foreign methods of angle and duration. I couldn’t tell you where I was or how I got there.

My back slammed onto the ground. The angle of my jump, the force of the shot, my singular focus on making the save, and my lack of expertise in such moments combined to turn me horizontal in mid-air. My body dispersed, but a bound self persisted enough that I vividly remember this instant of free-fall.

Many people, through many routes, have pursued similar fleeting moments; moments when nothing needs to make sense and nothing needs to be sensed because we have been removed from the mundane requirements to sense and make sense. Depending on the tenor of your philosophy, you might call this phenomenon “enlightenment,” “nirvana,” “losing yourself,” “bliss,” or any permutation, step towards, or variant thereof. Kerry “Kit” Howley might call it “ecstasy” or “ecstatic experience;” a specific usage of the term drawn from Schopenhauer and phenomenology.

Thrown, Howley’s chronicle of the pursuit of this “ecstasy” is The Great Gatsby from Gatsby’s perspective, but instead of a beautiful woman with whom the fresh potential of young love was shared, Howley courses an experience of hyper-aware ecstasy that Kit stumbled into first while escaping a beigely debilitating “conference on phenomenology, where a balding professor stunningly wrong about Husserlian intentionality dominated the postconference cocktail hour.” (p3) Kit, “[h]aving nothing to do in Des Moines beyond explore Husserl with nonsmokers who did not understand him[…]walked the conference hallways,” until she encountered this moment of ecstasy in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) match featuring Sean Huffman. Soon after, she encountered that experience again through the martial efforts of Erik Koch. Then Kit pursued that ecstasy through thousands of miles of travel, months of stagnation, and unsatisfying moments, even abandoning her own philosophy degree. And she pursued without waver, without doubt, and with a rare prose confidence. I’ll say this now because other themes and ideas will pull me away from this moment, because there are questions of narration and “fiction” I will not answer, because I’m a person and so will grapple with the ideas that connect to my emotions, because there will not be another chance, and because it is thrilling to say this; very few works of contemporary anything compare to the opening chapter of Thrown.

This is Howley’s ecstasy from Erik:

This moment lasts for days. We can only open our mouths in a united wordless moan. We are each of us simple tools of perception, free of the cloudying intellect, allowed a thinking of the body only accessible when men like Erik can[…]lead us outside ourselves. (p175)

And her ecstasy through Sean:

You’re not supposed to be able to live here, at this pitch, for more than a moment. But Sean, again and again, finds a way to stretch that single moment of ecstatic bliss into minute upon minute of blood-borne release. He is escaping through the slice in his forehead, the knuckle-cuts, the rip down the line of his nose, and it is possible to believe for fifteen short minutes, that we’ve found a way out. (p155)

Most fans don’t have an origin story for their relationship with their preferred sport; one is born into the milieu and either fandom takes or it doesn’t. However, MMA is new enough that most fans, like Kit, have a first moment they can identify as the origin of their fandom. Kit’s origin story is ditching a philosophy conference. Mine is some weekday night, after midnight, when I wanted to watch sports while I read, or typed, or attempted some other low-octane work, and nothing else was on. It was a day when neither the Red Sox nor the Bruins played, because the New England Sports Network rebroadcasts condensed versions of those games. It was also before WatchESPN, the online service and app that streams soccer, lacrosse, tennis, football, cricket, and rugby. I never intended to be a fan of MMA, but on that night, the only available experience close to what I sought was World Extreme Cagefighting — they did themselves no service with that name — on a station then called Versus. And I was curious.

If I wanted to impose narrative on the story of how I became a fan of MMA, I would claim the first fight I saw was the initial bout between Benson “Smooth” Henderson and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone because both fighters encapsulate so much of what appeals about MMA and so much of what casual dismissers of the sport miss, and because both fighters, as bodies in motion and in their fighting styles, embody the most compelling elements of MMA. Cerrone relentlessly advances in a jerky, yet rhythmic staccato of aggression, as much a Ramones chorus as a fighting style. There is an unnaturalness to Cerrone’s Muay Thai motion, a sense that his body will sublimate from some internal vibration. If Cerrone is The Ramones, Henderson is Coltrane; all style and flexibility, with a liquidity of motion that pours into the cracks of his opponent; a liquifaction of tendon and muscle only vulnerable to wild actions far beyond the scope of MMA, such as an opponent running up the cage to throw a head kick. Humans should not escape from the chokes, twists, and wrenches of fragile joints that Henderson escapes. That first fight featured a tumbling balletic array of take-downs, submission attempts, mounts, strikes, and escapes; the spontaneous and violent choreography that captured me for the sport.

Unfortunately, when a significant portion of the event involves men punching and kicking each other in the face, it is easy to miss the delicacy and intricacy, even in poems like Henderson vs. Cerrone. But Howley observes with a startling intensity, so no aspect of the fight, not even the clinch — the meticulous progression through centimeters of leverage and advantage that looks like a strangely active hug and is most likely to induce boos from the crowd — goes uncelebrated.

The way to that armbar was some twenty movements tried and countered, twenty deceptions tendered until one stuck and Jared relaxed into an elaborate trap set for him. ‘Like chess’ is the dull analogy of the unimagined, but more like snake-charming, the job being one of drawing out, wooing a body from its tight clenched coil into a single yielding line.” (p52)

“Extreme” is a term flagrantly attached to MMA, and given how different two men fighting in a cage is from the course of daily life, MMA might be one of the few sports to actually deserve the adjective. Yet, it is still applied lazily, only to the most visually dramatic and blood-spilling aspects of the fight, only to the events whose extremeness is obvious. But Howley’s gaze reveals the extreme in every aspect of MMA; from the head kick to the clinch, from the rear-naked choke to fighters circling each other, from the open and obvious wounds to the long term demands on the body.

I was a defenseman for the varsity hockey team my senior year of high school. Previously, the team had discipline problems, so the coach imposed a no-tolerance policy; if a player received a major penalty or a misconduct of any kind, he would sit out the next game. Hockey teams usually carry six defensemen, but, because of that policy, we started a game with four. Before the end of the first period, an injury reduced us to three. Hockey is essentially anaerobic. Depending on your position, you either skate until your guts fall out for 30-60 seconds or you skate a little below gut-falling level, with occasional breaks but also occasionally reaching gut-falling level, for upwards of two minutes. I played almost the entire third period.

I have three distinct memories from this game. I was resting after a several minute shift when one of the two remaining defensemen came to the bench. I burst onto the ice with the renewed vigor of the start of a period. I don’t think I returned to the bench until the end of the game. Second, I rushed the puck up the middle. An errant stick pulled off my right glove, but I took a shot that forced the goalie to make a good save. It was the closest I ever came to scoring on varsity. Finally, at a stoppage of play, one of the referees told me I was the star of the game. Referees are not in the habit of conferring such praise. By that point, my body had evaporated from my being. We expect extreme experiences to teach us and this game did teach me, but can I claim it taught me anything but the reactions of my body and consciousness in a particular situation? Can we actually transfer these moments of extreme physicality — either experienced or witnessed — to any other aspect of life? For the athlete, is it simply a kernel of self-knowledge? For the spectator, is it just material for the extrapolation of their own equivalent kernel?

As philosophical and intellectual as Howley’s project is, she never loses sight of its physicality. Even if she is seeking an experience outside her body, Howley does so through the bodies of Sean and Erik. Erik has a natural fluidity, an inherent grace that allows him to win fights through a subtle series of delicate and precise movements. “To watch Erik move was to watch Cartesian dualism disproved.” (p55) Whereas Erik’s pathway to ecstasy is a feather in an updraft, Sean’s pathway is the endurance of physical damage. It doesn’t even support a metaphor. In every fight Kit attends, Sean is hit far more than he hits, cut far more than he cuts, bruised far more than he bruises, and damaged far more than he damages, and yet, his demeanor never changes. His advance never wavers. Not even organ failure discourages him. “’Well,’ said Sean when I finally saw him[…]’My kidneys kind of failed this morning.’” (p205) Erik is the grace condemners ignore. Sean is the image condemners display.

After developing an interest in MMA, I watched videos of MMA’s first real champion and star, Royce Gracie. Royce’s father invented Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the family popularized the style. There is something mysterious about watching Royce Gracie fight. No matter how closely I watch, I never see when Gracie transitions from fighting to winning. The fighters are facing off and then are on the ground. Gracie is getting punched by his opponent over and over again and then, after some amount of squirming, twisting, and shifting, Gracie is on his opponent’s back applying a decisive choke hold. MMA has evolved since Gracie was the champion and there is no mystery to how current superstar and recent champion Anderson Silva won fights. He was just faster, stronger, and more flexible than his opponents. He dodged punches like a video game character. He knocked out an opponent with a front kick. He trapped Travis Lutter in a triangle and dragged and struck him with his elbow — horizontally and thus legally — across the skull until Lutter tapped; the only submission I’ve ever seen due to strikes. The heart of MMA is in fighters like Royce and Sean, in a fighting system of patience and endurance designed to allow smaller, slower, and weaker fighters to defeat their physical superiors. But no one prevented those physical freaks from learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu and its offspring, so the championship belts are worn by those like Anderson and Erik who unite skill and practice with innate, sometimes unbelievable, physical talent.

The injuries Sean absorbs are just one type of disfigurement fighters endure, one that we are emotionally and intellectually prepared for, either to condemn or celebrate, but that graceful feather Erik goes through his own disfigurements. In MMA, fighters fight at their lowest possible weight, meaning that, in the weeks leading up to the official weigh-in, they shed as much flesh as possible. They starve themselves. They dehydrate themselves. They sweat in saunas. They jog in rubber suits. Skin tightens. Bones jut. Hollows deepen around eyes and collar bones. The body distorts. Even if his injuries disturb us, the context prepares us for Sean’s squashed nose and gashed forehead, but there is something masochistic, even lurid, about Erik’s weight-loss coping mechanism. He surrounds himself with food he can’t eat. He buys fast food for his friends and drives them around with the windows closed so he can smell their meals. He watches the Food Network. He obsessively plans his first post-weigh-in meal. For all the physical and emotional violence, perhaps the most disturbing scene Howley writes, is when Erik, on a day of tightly regulated water intake and having eating only a single hard-boiled egg with the yolk meticulously removed, spends a half-hour at a closed buffet reading food labels above empty silver trays. Howley can both describe punches to the reader and throw punches at the reader.

The idea of enlightenment through suffering has had numerous permutations in history, both philosophical and religious. Howley’s project is different in that the ecstasy of the aesthete is available, at least in transient moments, to the spectator of the aesthete’s ordeal. We can taste enlightenment simply by watching, with the right perspective, fighters attain or approach their enlightenment. Of course, sport has always included vicarious experience; the joy of feeling like you have won through watching someone else win, but Howley takes that easy idea and pushes it to something dramatic. It’s not about feeling the feelings of winning by watching Sean or Erik win, but about reaching a transcendent emotional and philosophical state through intensely observing the process of their contest.

I came to baseball relatively late in my sports life, after I learned the particular patience enjoying baseball requires. Since I grew up in New England, I was instantly, perhaps even retroactively, initiated into the mythology of The Red Sox Curse. It wasn’t an existential component of my sports consciousness as it was for so many, but it was present. I was living in the Boston area in 2004. Even without The Curse hanging over every pitch, it was a hell of a postseason. From Dave Roberts’ steal against the Yankees to the final out in their sweep of the — on paper — vastly better Cardinals, the Red Sox played some of the most amazing baseball I had ever seen.

The emotions of an entire culture concentrated over the course of the playoffs into a routine ground ball out, and then it was like millions of people all went through the seven stages of grief, except for joy. I watched one of the greatest moments in sports with two people who didn’t give a shit about baseball. They were watching because I had the game on. As the players celebrated on the field, I turned to them desperate to fully experience this completely unique communal moment and faced a void. What could I do? I ran out into the neighborhood to participate in something that could only be participated in once and only in a screaming, crying, hugging, high-fiving community.

Other than rational apathy, Howley might have the worst possible approach to sports. Spectating sports is not and never has been about personal, transcendental ecstasy — though it can pass through and feel like personal, transcendental ecstasy — but is, and always has been, about communal, experiential ecstasy. Though the effect is similar to getting out of your own skin, sport and its ecstasy is about the joy of the skin; not just through the bodies of the athletes, but through the direct and indirect contact with the bodies of other fans. Even individual sports, like tennis or MMA, and in situations when the spectator is technically alone, sports is about the hugs and high-fives, whether actual, verbal, or emotional. It is the joy of talking with a co-worker about how Chael Sonnen’s radical personality change after his second loss to Silva revealed his near psychopathic behavior to be a beautifully executed act and the joy of knowing millions of other people who you will never meet are also up far too early on a Saturday morning to watch the World Cup in real time. It is a joy that encompasses background at the bar and religious devotion in front of the TV, the pick-up soccer game after school and the World Series at-bat, the practice mat and the octagon. As someone who saw the Red Sox break the curse with apathetes, I know there are few more dispiriting sensations than the unavailable high-five. With no acknowledgment of the high-five, Howley is completely wrong about sports.

But the fervor of her intellectual intensity allows her to reach enlightening experimental explorations and her rejection of inherited sports narratives allows her to reveal aspects of sports most fans refuse to confront. For example, she does not obscure the aleatory nature of sports. Erik Koch got his title shot almost entirely because of a string of other fighter’s injuries, and lost it, because of a tiny ridge in a practice mat. (I am still a little shell-shocked by the Bruins hitting the post 13 times against the Canadiens.) Nor does she pretend, as most of us do, that hard work is the greater component of success. She doesn’t obscure the fact that Sean is predisposed to endure and recover from punishment. It certainly does take hard work to reach the level Erik reaches, but there was no amount of time he, or anyone else, could put in at practice to bring him up to the level of Anderson Silva or Jose Aldo. Of course, everyone has genes.

Even though for years I got up for five a.m. practices, even though I did double sessions with the high school team, even though I played in summer leagues and went to off-season skills trainings, and even though there was a time in my life when hockey was my most important activity, hockey was not my best sport. Rugby was. I spent far, far more time practicing hockey, but that didn’t have nearly as much impact on my ability as my genetics. Those thousands of hours certainly contributed to a level of quality, just not as much as 5’7”, playing weight of 225lbs., an unusually low center of gravity, and enough speed to sprint 100m in 13ish seconds.

Thrown might have nothing to do with sports, but that does not diminish Howley’s achievement with the sport of MMA. She internalizes the confidence of the fighter, the certainty that she will win every single fight, and transformed it into brilliant prose. Howley writes with a scintillating bravado as reminiscent of Muhammad Ali as it is of Michel Foucault, never wavering from her sense of self, her sense of importance, or her sense of prose. She writes: “Instead of being celebrated as a pioneer of modern phenomenology, I would merely be a footnote in the future study of Schopenhauer, whom, without my prodding, no one would study in the future.” (p178) She writes:

I had by the time filled tree notebooks with my observations, and had begun to consider the tradition in which my work of phenomenology would fall. Too bold for conventional academic minds and the nonsmoking healthy-minded, hidebound thinkers therein, it would harken backward to comprehensive works of genius such as Inner Experience and The World as Will and Representation.” (p162)

She writes, “But of course my wishes were aligned with his interest in living a worthwhile existence, while Alexis merely sought to extract small amounts of cash.” (p222)

At times Kit is like John Marcher from “The Beast in the Jungle,” by Henry James. Marcher believes he is fated for something catastrophic, though he doesn’t know what. He had “the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible that was sooner or later to happen[…].’” Marcher describes this phenomenon as “possibly destroying all further consciousness, possibly annihilating me; possibly, on the other hand, altering everything, striking at the root of all my world and leaving me to the consequences however they shape themselves.” Everything Marcher sees is through the lens of the beast and thus, his world is distorted. And in the end, the beast is as much a creation of his belief in it, as it is an independent phenomenon.

Kit’s relentlessness, as seen through the tragedy of John Marcher, leads me to ask; can you approach phenomena as a phenomenologist or is the act of philosophy only preparation and revision? In order to be meaningful as an experience, “ecstasy” has to be difficult, it needs to be distinct — even radically distinct — from daily phenomena, but there is a chance Kit’s efforts in her spacetaking for Erik Koch and Sean Huffman created too great a distinction. Easy ecstasy is meaningless, but so is impossible ecstasy.

Where Kit is John Marcher from “The Beast in the Jungle,” Kerry Howley is Henry James. As Howley writes:

The categories of sight and sound no longer applied, for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these rough tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear. (p163)

Language is beyond the senses. It evades the limitations of our organs to engage the full potential of the mind. Whatever experiential goal a philosopher or a writer may set for herself, the result will be an experience of language. For Howley, as for James, fights are not ecstatic, writing is. Ecstasy is an act of prose, and, in this way, Thrown is one of the most ecstatic books you’ll ever read.

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Josh Cook‘s essays have appeared in Bookslut, The Rumpus, The Millions, and Fiction Advocate. Other writing has appeared in numerous  literary magazines and journals. His novel An Exaggerated Murder is being published by Melville House in March 2015.