Minnesota Poetry: Stephen Burt’s “For Lindsay Whalen”

News of basketball pro Lindsay Whalen's return to Minnesota immediately reminded me of this poem by Stephen Burt. Burt taught from 2000 to 2007 at Macalester College in St. Paul (he now resides in the English Department at Harvard University). He's also a big fan of women's basketball. While in Minnesota, Burt followed the U of M Gophers as Whalen led them to the NCAA Final Four while nursing a broken hand. It inspired "For Lindsay Whalen."

For Lindsay Whalen

You only have the skills that you can use.

The shots you make surround you like a breeze.

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When someone wins, then someone has to lose.

You don't show off. We know you by your moves:

A feint, a viewless pass, a perfect tease

Make space for all the skills that you can use.

Defenders and their shadows, three on two,

Start at you like infuriated bees:

You glide through them. You take the looks they lose.

As serious as science, picking clues

And dodges that no other player sees,

You find the skills that only you could use:

Applause, then silence. Scrape of distant shoes.

Then race through packed periphery to free

Space no one lifts a hand to. - Win or lose,

Such small decisions, run together, fuse

In concentration nothing like the ease

We seem to see in all the skills you use,

Til someone wins. Then someone else will lose.

"For Lindsay Whalen" by Stephen Burt, from his collection Parallel Play published by Graywolf Press. Printed here with permission from the publisher. Burt is also the author of a book poetry criticism, called Close Calls with Nonsense.