Jason Koo: “Bon Chul Koo and the Hall of Fame”

Bon Chul Koo and the Hall of Fameis a poem from Jason Koo’s new book of poems, Man on Extremely Small Island.


Boston to Cleveland, ten hours with Dad in the car,
and I’m thinking, How am I going to get through this,
remembering the last time we took a road trip,

ten years ago, stadium-hopping through the Carolina League,
Class A ball, Kinston, Winston-Salem, Lynchburg
and, of course, Durham, back in high school

when I was writing The Great American Novel
about a starting pitcher on the Kinston Indians (which
began, “Ball four,” and went on for 147

single-spaced pages) and told him I needed to do
some on-site research, getting the exact dimensions
of fields, the colors of uniforms, the feel and flavor

of local crowds, as well as a few good player names
(such as Wonderful Monds, outfielder for the Bulls),
and he surprisingly agreed to take me, only to get

food poisoning on the second day of the trip
and spend the rest of it lying down in the backseat
of the car or, if he had space, right there in the bleachers,

never saying, Let’s go home, but not happy either,
sighing every few miles we’d drive in silence, as if to say,
I’m barely able to eat a nacho, going to all these stupid games


      and still I cannot talk to my son, and even though I knew this,
I didn’t break the silence, not even to say, Thanks,
Dad, I appreciate what you’re doing or How’re you feeling?

and when he would break it, finally working up the courage
to ask me a question, as if I were a famous poet
and he a lowly MFA student at a post-reading Q&A,

articulating it in his head beforehand, getting the English
right, making slight clicking noises with his mouth
as he prepared to speak, building up the right tension

of tongue against teeth, he would go for too much,
asking, So, Jay, what do you see yourself doing in ten years?
or How come you hate your mom? and I would react badly,

almost violently, and he would go back to sighing again,
and I would drift away. I don’t want to repeat that
silence yet don’t exactly want to make the effort to talk,

would, truthfully, much rather be driving alone
listening to one of my favorite bands, the music coalescing
with my mind over the landscape, my body going weightless

with speed, so I feed Dad questions about Korean
political history, our family, subjects I know he can talk about
with pleasure and authority (and that I, now, am

genuinely interested in), letting him apply the gas
to the conversation while I steer it with just a light grip
of thumb and finger, enjoying the opening space

      of two drives, and he’s supplying me with dates, telling me
he was born in 1945, went to high school in the early
60s, served in Vietnam in the early 70s, married Mom

in 1973 and moved to America in 1974, none of which
I knew, exactly, until now, growing up as I did not just
with gaps in my knowledge of family history

but a whole obliterating fog, and as he talks I realize
how greedy I am for this knowledge, the simple facts
of my past, notched in dates, the credentials of a 20th-century

personal history, as if my self were a hole finally filling
with the proper topsoil of information, the featherweight
seeds at the bottom abruptly catching into life,

and I feed him questions at greater speed, with more reach,
asking about the Korean War, how badly our family
was affected by it, whether we had to flee our homes,

whether anybody fought or (gulp) died, slightly afraid
that he’s going to reveal a whole substrata of slaughter
and suffering beneath my level of consciousness,

but he says, No, our family was lucky, the war never reached us.
Taegu was the last line of defense and it was never crossed.
Grandpa was a police chief so he didn’t need to fight in the war.

And I’m thinking, Whew! but at the same time, Is that it?
wondering how I managed to evade history even in a country
literally split in half by it, almost disappointed

by the narrative, musing, This is not the Korean
American Experience publishers are looking for,
“may you never remember & may you never forget,”

that sort of thing, but digging Dad’s no big deal attitude,
the cool way he recounts all this, the partly surprised
expression he wears on his face, as if he hasn’t thought

about this stuff in years and is not exactly sure why
I’m asking. We’re driving through New York State,
both of us feeling pretty good about ourselves, Dad damn near

chatty, but I start to feel that old familiar tug
toward silence again, the not-quite-ease of the conversation,
the build-up of so many previous car rides in silence

to and from the airport, school, violin and tennis lessons,
the silence more a father than my own father,
when he asks, Do you want to go to Cooperstown?

And my immediate reaction is No, not really, but I can
sense how much it means to him, how he’s starting to believe
in the romance of the father-son relationship again

and needs to cement this feeling with a solid event,
and something tells me it’s now or never, that if we don’t go today
we’ll never go, and then I’ll have to take my son,

so I say, Sure—do we have time? since it’s Sunday, 3 PM,
the museum likely closes at five and we still have a good
seven hours to go until home, and Dad needs to work

tomorrow. He calculates, Well, it’s about twenty, thirty
minutes detour, and we have about thirty minutes to go before that,
      which leaves us almost no time to see the museum

but we go for it, shooting through the countryside,
and even though it’s only supposed to be about a half hour
off our route, once we’ve made the turn for the museum

it seems to take an eternity to get there, our car proceeding
more and more into nowhere, no cars before or behind
us, and I joke, What genius put the Baseball Hall of Fame

way out here, trying to keep the mood light, since the landscape
is no Field of Dreams (especially under a light rain
during the off-season) and I know Dad’s sense of romance

must be fading; but I think we’re supposed to feel
we’re moving back in time to a “mythic” America,
leaving the evil of cities and the 20th century behind,

though all I feel is anxious and out of place, the growing
obviousness of our faces, and I’m half-hoping the museum
will be closed when we get there so we won’t be seen.

But it’s open. And Cooperstown itself is charming, all
the stores and restaurants baseball-themed—everything
bats and balls!—and I can imagine this whole experience

would have been less threatening to me as a child,
in the summer, in the sunlight. We approach the ticket
counter and I find myself bristling slightly at the man

who addresses Dad in a louder-than-usual voice, Hello, sir!
How can we help you today?
But I’m determined
to feel welcome, so I smile, joke with him, ask

a few questions about the Hall in crisp English.
Then Dad surprises me: Could I have one adult, one senior citizen?
At first I think he’s trying to put one past this guy

but then I realize he is that old, and for the first time
since coming home I look him steadily
in the face, notice the skin is paler, blotchier

than I remember it, the already thin hair not just thinner
but weaker, the scalp more glazed. We take the man’s advice
and start on the second floor to make sure we see

the permanent exhibition before the museum closes,
the window display of history from the 19th century
to the present, all the browning artifacts, the long cool bats

of sluggers, Ruth, Gehrig, Dimaggio, the homerun balls
notching a number, 60, 61, 714, the no-hitter balls all lined up
neatly together on a wall, some smudged and greasy,

others surprisingly clean, each bearing the whorled imprint
of its author somewhere in the cowhide and seams,
the tightening of a grip, fastball, forkball, slider, erosion

of oil and saliva; but as I’m looking at all this I’m struck
by how much effort of imagination it takes to get inside
the history, how groomed and clinical this history is,

the objects mute, almost helpless in their Plexiglas cages,
robbed of movement, the real record of the game,
the signature of each swing and delivery upon the air,

the weight shifts, positionings, balances, the digging
of cleated toes into dirt, the pitch-to-pitch, inning-to-inning,
game-to-game, season-to-season accumulation of tension

and release in memory—so that I want to dump this all
into stadiums, foul the objects off into stands,
fleck them with beer, mustard, relish, the dirt and germs

from each grasping hand. Nothing feels organic, least of all
me in my black leather jacket and shoes, leaning in to read
each accompanying paragraph of information (I learn

a pop-up was once called a “skyrocket”), the objects
kept from me not only by the glass but by my image
on top of the glass and then my glasses on top of that.

Dad falls behind, fussing with his camera. He catches up
to ask if I can pry open the plastic packaging
on a battery and, when I can’t, goes downstairs to seek out

scissors. He returns, triumphant, then has me move station
to station to create a storybook of our lives against
the century: first, Cy Young (a Cleveland Spider),

Bob Feller (ace of the last Cleveland Champs
in ‘48), Mickey Mantle (my favorite legend as a kid),
and then the Thurman Munson Yankees of the 70s,

the team my parents followed when they lived in New York
and I was born. I think back to Cleveland, nights in the kitchen
when Mom would let me listen to the game on the radio

while she cooked, going over the heroics of Guidry, Jackson,
Lou Piniella (When he came up, we’d all go Loooooo), helping me
to believe in a possible immortality for my woeful Indians,

a time when I cared about each game with an intensity
that made Dad scowl (Jay, it’s just gayyym), praying before
every Cory Snyder at bat (who hit .236), not wanting to leave

games until the final pitch (even the 17-0 rout we attended
as a family), believing each missed moment took a brick
out of the next, that I could build out of baseball

an edifice of meaning to house my lonely, unimportant self.
I would have given anything then for Dad to do
what he’s doing now, taking me to Cooperstown!

But he always just seemed to be annoyed with me,
and Mom, if anything, was the more indulgent of the two,
and she was not indulgent. Now Dad needs this

more than me, and I try to wait patiently as he takes
one picture after another with his digital camera,
often asking me to re-pose when the picture turns out

badly. I look too tall in all the images, overdressed,
not awkward enough, and I start to wonder if it’s too late
for father and son, the Hall closing, a long drive through the dark

still ahead, but Dad looks so happy, oblivious to all
the disappointment dusting his shoulders, trusting
in his camera to lock our experience into glossy rectangles,

that I can believe, for a moment, in the rightness of our presence,
the confirmation of the country around us,
until a rude old woman comes up to me and says, Sir, we’re CLOSING,

as I try to catch a glimpse of the inductee plaques.
I say, But we still have five minutes, and she says,
Don’t you want to go to the gift shop? and I storm out

thinking—I can’t help it—racist, small town, white trash,
where the hell does she have to be at this hour, just wanting
to get in the car and leave—but Dad wants to take

a few more pictures outside the museum. I stand there
stewing in the flash, thinking I’ll say something when
she comes out, like Don’t you understand going to Cooperstown

is a pilgrimage? But when she does come out, we’re still
taking pictures, and she doesn’t even look at us, just waddles
on her merry way home, and I look past her at the lights

twinkling the streets, the windowfronts softened by the rain,
and understand that confronting her would disrupt
this quiet passage home she likely looks forward to every day,

the clean pine air fresh on her skin, a comfortable couch
and a night of good television on up ahead, and the anger
of an Asian in this context just seems ridiculous . . .

I turn back to Dad, smile sincerely this time, defiantly, trying
to hold it as he troubles over the angle, the background,
and a car drives by and sees us Asians with a camera

copy of book cover 150Jason Koo is the author of Man on Extremely Small Island, winner of the 2008 De Novo Poetry Prize (C&R Press, 2009). He was born in New York City and grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. He earned his BA in English from Yale, his MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston and his PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri-Columbia. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center, he has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including The Yale Review, North American Review and The Missouri Review. He teaches at Lehman College, where he serves as Director of Graduate Studies in English. He lives in Brooklyn.  Check out his web site: http://www.jasonkoopoetry.com