I had a poem published this week titled "St. Agnes Eve Arrives in Steubenville, Ohio." I want to think out loud about it here, not so much explaining the poem, which doesn't merit explanation, as to talk about what's been troubling me about football this week--and all my life.
I have been re-reading James Wright’s poem, “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio” [available here], a poem I have always loved because as an Ohioan from one of the most football cities in this very football state—my hometown of Canton being the home of the Professional Football Hall of Fame—the poem really captures for me how high school football players become the be-all and end-all, the heroes, for many people in a sad town that has nothing else going for it. “Suicidally beautiful,” Wright describes their playing in his last stanza. The boys “…grow suicidally beautiful” [emphasis mine]. They weren’t born suicidally beautiful, they become that way once on the field, the poem suggests but suggests too, I think, that the boys are being raised to this way of being.Recently, in light of what has been called “The Steubenville Rape Trials” coming up in March,* I have been thinking a lot about who is missing from the poem. The fathers are there in the second stanza, and “their women,”--presumably the mothers, though they aren’t awarded their parental title-- are there in the second stanza where they “cluck like starved pullets.” However, I only now notice, there are no daughters. They are MIA, which is curious because there are a LOT of daughters at our Ohio football game. Heck, at all football games, even at the Super bowl..
A high school friend, Jenny Ebert, posted on Facebook during the Super bowl this past Sunday: “Why can't women stay dressed @ the Superbowl? It always has to be about sex. Where is entertainment with amazing dancing & singing, and uplifting encouraging messages. Enough pelvic thrusts and bouncing boobs!!!”
I wrote back: “They can't stay dressed at the Superbowl because they can't stay dressed at football games and perform. Don't you remember the PHS head majorette in 15 degree temps performing in a teeny sequined swimsuit??”Jenny’s post triggered a memory from my junior year in high school. The head majorette was scheduled for a half-time solo in her new, exciting costume. She was tiny, probably a size five, maybe three, and the costume was a sleeveless, high-rise, silvery one-piece, skimpier than anything I can find in google images. That outfit would have made the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders look overdressed. I recall too that it was so very bitter cold that penultimate game of the season, that Friday night in November, the ground one quarter-mud, three-quarters-ice, as she walked out with so much skin exposed and performed her full baton routine, then ran back, where her mother wrapped her in a big blanket, and she was half-carried to the bus till she could stop shivering like a broken toy.
Clearly what the sons are given to do at the games is heroic. What the daughters are given to do is…entertain the troops. How half-naked in November accomplishes this is one the adults should come clean about. In addition to the majorettes, we had the cheerleaders, which were never ever boys at our school, always girls. Short skirts. And certainly bouncing boobs.
And then there are the Queens for homecoming and their attendants. My sister was one of them, every year. Sophomore, then Junior Attendant, then Queen. And I had long forgotten, and now recently recalled again, her telling me about one weekend her senior year when.she was dating a star player on the football team. They had been in his parents’ basement watching TV when he came on to her. She said no. He forced himself. She fought. She screamed. And then she heard his parents’ car in the driveway. She screamed louder and more. And he stopped, told her to stop, stop. He’d stop if she’s just be quiet. She did, he did, and she went up the stairs and came home.
The next morning, she told my mother what happened, and my mother, as my sister retold me, said, “Well, you know those football players are trained to take what they want.” Let me be clear. My sister was not raped. And she did not call it rape. But in that moment with my mother, who otherwise always took her side, she saw that there would be no support for her if she were raped, especially not if she got pregnant. Then you were supposed to keep your mouth shut and marry the guy and have the baby. The following fall, my sister left for college and spent much of her time as a speech major researching a speech on rape that she gave often and won with in college competitions. She never had the opportunity to give the speech in our hometown, which she never returned to for longer than a week-long visit. The football player went on to become a coach in our school system.
Ah, the coaches. The Steubenville coach went right ahead with the season. According to the New York Times, he asked players if they felt they did anything wrong, and they said no, so he did nothing to them, even though they drank, witnessed the girl being molested, and posted photos of it on the internet. Finally in October when two team members testified in legal hearings that they had done these things, the coach suspended them. (The season was 80% over.) And then there are the coaches of the teams that went ahead and played Steubenville.The lovely fans of Massillon, the team in my backyard here, had a sign at the play-offs that said, "Rape Steubenville." Classy, huh? Note to coaches: Forfeit if you have to in order to take a stand saying, we are not going to have anything to do with guys who would treat another human this way, But then we wouldn’t have a Superbowl some years if we held to those standards.
The female, a 16-year old honors student from a small Catholic high school across the river in West Virginia, may or may not have been raped, technically, but clearly she was abominably treated. The judge said the treatment of her by others at the party "did not rise to the level of criminal conduct" (I think he meant "sink to the level of criminal conduct"). Hmmm, they watched and snapped photos of her being hauled, passed out, naked, drunk, to three different parties, where she threw up and had fingers stuck up her crotch– all of which we know from the testimony of many classmates and the evidence of many photos on phones and posted online. If this is not rape in the legal sense, surely it is in the metaphoric, emotional, and very human sense. And the high school girls who stood and watched?-- I don't ever want to meet one of them. No one has said a word about them. Who are they??As I have been thinking and writing about this all, I happened to check out the calender the weekend of the whole legal entanglement about how this very young girl was to be referred to in court. Her lawyers wanted her referred to as “the rape victim,” but the defense, wanting to remain innocent until proven guilty of raping, wanted her referred to as “the accused.” I was galvanized by the date the papers were filed and announced. Smack between the dates: January 20th, St. Agnes day. Previously, all I knew about the day was that Keats had a poem about it because St. Agnes was the saint of virgins. Wondering what that was about, I looked up her legend. Seems Agnes, who lived during the Dark Ages (ahem), was desired as bride by the Prefect’s son, whom she turned down. So, as the legend goes, the Prefect had her sentenced to death. Only you couldn’t kill a virgin then. So the Prefect dragged her to a brothel before he killed her. Dragged her through the mud, so to speak. Oh, and in addition to virgins, she is also the saint of rape victims, I come to find out. I couldn't even write about that without feeling I had a sledge hammer.
So I wrote the parody that was published this week—not to mock Wright’s poem. A parody can be an imitation, or a response. I wanted to respond to my own question about Wright's poem: what is happening to the daughters as the sons grow suicidally beautiful? You can read it at New Verse News.
(*For the best re-cap of what is being called "The Steubenville Rapes," see the long New York Times summary here.)