The Dunk, Through and Through

A poet who knows nothing about sports writes a poem about the slam dunk.

Illustration by Sean Ford.

For Shaquille

Where does a poem come from? I write something bad on a piece of paper, I crumple the piece of paper up, I slam-dunk the paper into the trash. I sink deeper into myself and think.

The dunk is conceptually exciting. The word itself like the sound of the thing! I’m surprised all poems aren’t called “The Dunk”— then everyone would have to be impressed by them. If a poem is called “The Dunk” then very certainly it is one.

Like you’re reading a poem at Barack Obama’s inauguration and as soon as you read the words “The Dunk” you see Barack Obama pumping his fist like Yesss, she did it! At the end of the poem he shouts, “SWEET DUNK.”

Let’s see, what do we know about the dunk. First no one could dunk, and then they all could. There occurred a kind of leap. The dunk evolved, and then stood upright, with too big a brain at the top of it, the ball.

I am playing a game, the ball is in my hands, I am looking to see who’s open.

SHAQ has an excellent Twitter account that mostly consists of him telling various people that he is going to have sex with their mothers. Also one day he is gonna fight Jose Canseco, which, what form would that even take? SHAQ dunks the basketball of Jose, Jose bunts the baseball of SHAQ?

I don’t even know what bunting is, really. It’s good that I don’t know very much about sports. That way the poem will have a certain … freshness.

I think back to the only movie I’ve ever seen about basketball, which was a TV movie about a basketball player who knew instinctively where his teammates were going to be before they even got there! So he passed to empty spaces, but the passes always arrived in the hands of a player. This is as magical as shit ever gets. This is going in. If I were an extreme fucker, I would write something here about literature, like “Great literature foretells the human position, it passes to the places where we are going to be!”

It doesn’t go in after all. Whoa, rejected by the hoop. Some hoops are hostile! Some poems want almost nothing to go in them at all!

Do I have any books about basketball in my house? No! What’s all this shit about depressed married people in England? This doesn’t help! England doesn’t care about dunking! (Probably because they’re still mad about George Washington dunking on King George III in the year of our Lord 1776???)

Possible diss George Washington might have made to King George III: “Boy, you couldn’t even dunk a teabag.”

Do I have any books about sports whatsoever? The closest I have is John Jeremiah Sullivan, who is a sportswriter’s son. He offers the quote: “Nature does not make leaps.”— Leibniz. I beg to disagree, Leibniz!

Oooo look it’s Nature, recently drafted by the No. 1 team The Sports, racing down the court like a force of you-know-what, going in for the biggest leap of all, and what? What’s it doing? Dunking a human being perfectly into its own skin? YES IT IS!

A crowd materializes out of thin air and goes wild.

Tragically, the women of my family are saddled with unfortunate balance problems due to having sideways baby toes. Sometimes I fall down for no reason while I’m just standing there, inevitably uttering a sort of WHOOPS or UH-OH that implies that something happened to make me fall down but nothing ever did. A tragedy for sports, but a Triumph for Literature.

Let’s go watch dunk bloopers for like an hour! It is just as important to study the spectacular failures as it is to study the spectacular successes. Sobering thought that is also very poetic: Has a dunk blooper ever ended with someone’s death?

What is the state I enter into? A state like I’ve shot a hundred free throws, and I’ve reached the point where I’m making all of them, and the body’s memory of how to do something has wholly taken over?

Except this is the brain’s memory of how to do it, and my body is just a super-bad feeling in my thigh where I’ve kept my legs crossed for like four hours now, which certainly cannot be healthy.

The only proper word for it is “reverie,” and that is hardly a word to be taken seriously. Reveries are something Byron had. Think how much Byron would have loved the dunk, as a kind of sped-up sunset, as a metaphor for what he did to ladies!

Or like Donne wouldn’t have written a dunk poem. He would totally have written a death sonnet about the dunk and called it, “The Sickest Dunk Can Never Die.” Shakespeare I guess would have dunked from half-court, taking steps three at a time in the air, and everyone else would have gotten pissed and gone home.

Emily Dickinson is Muggsy Bogues?

Who is the Harlem Globetrotters of literature? Whoever I decide it is, that is gonna be the WORST burn.

(Hahaha it’s totally Jonathan Safran Foer, isn’t it.)

How long has it been now, days or weeks, and I am still happy to stay inside the poem, though I get a little feeling like it wants me out. Lots of time on the clock. The clock is running out. When the period of work is over I feel it, like one of those gentle doors that, closing, rests at the last moment on a cushion of air.

When that door closes it is closed, and I have to find another way in tomorrow. I am playing a game, I am looking for an opening.

Read the poem whose creation is chronicled here, “The Descent of the Dunk” by Patricia Lockwood.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.

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