Steven Heighton, “Night Skaters, Skeleton Park”

If you are connected to CanLit in some way, you probably heard the news a couple of weeks ago that Steven Heighton had passed away from cancer. It’s a great shock – Steven was only 60, a prolific and accomplished writer in multiple genres, universally admired. I didn’t know him well, but we met a few times at literary events, and exchanged congratulatory emails when new books came out. He was generous with his praise and attention, and had a way of looking directly at you that forced you to take your thinking a bit more seriously. He was leading-man handsome, often sporting sideburns and a leather jacket that seemed both slightly dated and also effortlessly cool. When it came to poetry, he was a real craftsman – not an experimentalist, necessarily, just someone consistently writing really good poems with clarity, vision, and care. It’s a great loss.

Here’s one of his later poems from Selected Poems 1983-2020, published by House of Anansi last year:

Night Skaters, Skeleton Park

Puck pummels the boards, a wrister
rings the crossbar, whispers in netting,
razoring strides shave up crystal grit. Plays
unwitnessed score their own applause —
mister, it’s like making the finals,
only finer —
		a mosaic, ice-frieze, fresco,
the scratched and cross-hatched drafts of a poem.
Rink lights fade but your blades grind on,
plying tunes from the grooves
like needles do on white-hot vinyl.

                            Used with permission from House of Anansi Press

This poem was commissioned by the Skeleton Park Arts Festival in Kingston, where Heighton lived. (Feel free to find out more about the Festival here.) And so it makes sense that the first pleasures of the poem come from the way Heighton evokes the sounds of the skaters playing shinny at the rink.  He starts with some basic alliteration – puck pummels and wrister rings the crossbar – in language that manages to be both familiar and fresh. My favorite phrase here is “razoring strides shave up crystal grit.” Say that one out loud – it’s a glorious mouthful as it tries to imitate the sound of the ice that is somehow scalp-itchingly dry, despite the fact that its medium is frozen water.

Moving beyond the physical descriptions of the game, the poem turns its attention to another pleasure of sports: “Plays / unwitnessed score their own applause.” I don’t think the poem is suggesting that there’s anything highlight-worthy of the “plays / unwitnessed” referred to here — it’s just a community rink, after all, and the game is likely amateurish. There are few fans in the stands, so the plays themselves have to “serve as their own applause.” And yet I suspect that all of us who regularly play sports appreciate the well-timed pass, the deft save, the well-turned double-play, the consistent 15-footer. That is to say, the regular plays that we are all capable of, and which don’t earn any more praise than the satisfactions of the game, and maybe a quick tap from a teammate.

When we say something like “mister, it’s like making the finals – / only finer —,” you know we’re exaggerating. But we’re not making the finals, never-ever, and the rush from scoring the winning goal in a pickup game of shinny might be as good as it’s going to get. That’s still pretty good, as long as we keep it in perspective. For me, part of what the poem is celebrating is the way community rinks, courts, and fields give gawky teenagers, late bloomers, stressed moms, nostalgic has-beens, and grizzled old vets the opportunity to achieve these unspectacular moments of grace. 

Wally showing off his athletic prowess

But I want to pause on this moment in the poem for a minute. Who’s speaking this line? Who’s this “mister”? Is it a bit of captured dialogue, a local speaking to the poet or some other witness at the park? Or is the poem speaking to us, his readers? “Mister” is a bit archaic, a bit formal, hearkening back to a time I associate with black-and-white television, like something Wally Cleaver would say to a passerby: “Hey Mister, can you throw our ball back over the fence?” I’ll come back to this.

To this point, the poem is a rich response to what I assume was Heighton’s assignment: to write something that could be inscribed on the walls of the rink, or on a plaque nearby, celebrating the space, the game, and the community that surrounds it. Mission accomplished by line 6. 

Then there’s a bit of a turn. Our attention zooms in on the ice itself, and what it looks like in the aftermath of the game: “the scratched and cross-hatched drafts of a poem.” Here my ears prick up – yes, the chicken-scratch of the blade marks might resemble someone’s bad handwriting. But if we’re reading these lines in a poem, suddenly I’m also reverse-engineering the metaphor: could these marks – on the ice, on the page – be linked as the remnants of efforts to achieve grace in a small-scale community venue that promises little hope of ever “making the finals”? Are the pleasures of writing a poem like the pleasures of playing rec-league hockey? 

Now the idea that “your blades grind on” even after the rink lights have been turned off has additional resonance for me – the loneliness of this kind of practice, the absurd dedication required to improve or even to maintain one’s skills. Notice also that this is the first moment where a real pronoun appears, and it’s you. This might be referring to the night skaters from our title who are still playing, but it could also now be the you who is scratching and cross-hatching at that poem in the dark. Now we can look back at the beginning of the poem – the crisp wrister, the clever turn of phrase – and recognize how much work it took to pull it off. It’s the hours spent after the rink lights have faded that earn you the skills to write a line like “razoring strides shave up crystal grit.”

What is this ancient contraption?!

The poem’s final image adds another connection: the late-night work is compared to “plying tunes from the grooves / like needles do on white-hot vinyl.” Just as with the “mister” in the first half of the poem, this strikes me as a bit archaic – I mean, apart from hipsters and aficionados, who owns records any more? Even the phrase “white hot vinyl” recalls 60s radio disk jockeys. Why these gestures to the past? Of course, if we want to connect the speaker of the poem directly to Heighton himself, we might imagine that he had fond memories of playing records and calling people Mister. 

But for me it’s more than that — the slightly out-of-date images and terminology call our attention to the legacy of these pleasures even when they aren’t the latest trend. Someone who, in 21st century, thinks of his music collection as “white hot vinyl,” or someone practicing his moves long after dark at a community ice rink, or someone writing precise and artful poems in the age of TikTok, probably is aware his efforts aren’t cool or worthy of applause. And yet here we are, all of us, at the end of the poem (and the end of this essay), feeling the line, and recognizing its heat, even on the choppy icescape of a public park in Kingston. The groove we are searching for is its own reward. 

Steven Heighton will be sorely missed. 

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