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Paralympic Rower Oksana Masters Inspires New Sonnet Form

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I first see her in ESPN The Magazine's 2012 Body Issue, naked on the small wooden dock where her scull was moored, as if she always rowed au natural. I imagine her $100,000-a-piece prosthetic legs, which she dubs her "Lamborghinis," arranged flirtatiously -- an adverb describing the resting state of prosthetic devices I had previously only found useful for describing Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin's giant silver dildo arm -- on the shore's edge with her crumpled rowing uniform, as she glides her way across the surface of the water with the powerful, synchronized strokes of her arms.

Rapid Googling: radiated in the womb (Did someone make this up?), adopted from a Ukrainian orphanage by a single mother in Buffalo at age seven (Did I?), rowing partner with a Marine who lost his legs to an IED in Afghanistan (Did Jerry Bruckheimer?).

Oksana Masters is a bilateral above-knee amputee and adaptive trunk and arm rower, who competed with the aforementioned veteran, Rob Jones, for the United States at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. She's rowed since age thirteen -- which makes a perfect decade of experience in 2012 -- and was the first adaptive rower in the Indiana Head of the Eagle, where she competed in the open women single race and won first place. Rowing is the most recent sport to be added to the Paralympic Games, and athletes are classified according to the amount of functional ability they have. Oksana and Rob compete in the middle category -- below legs, trunk and arms (LTA) rowers, but above arms and shoulders (AS) rowers. Trunk and arm rowers compete over 1000 meters, in mixed double sculls.

Google Image Search turns up a few more photos from the ESPN shoot, taken by Martin Schoeller, including one featuring Oksana pulling her lithe body up an old rope with her arms. The stuff of poetry.

The first few lines come easily, in a pretty natural pentameter, on my iPhone:

Your body is a sky starred with tattoos
to map your North and South. You climb a rope
with just your arms, you coyly smile, refuse
to live an amputated life.


I continue my poem on the way to Jack's and Kim's to play Settlers of Cattan, where I mark my amateurish scansion on a waiter's order pad that Jack gives me when I ask for paper, counting beats on my thumbs. Not productive. Still, I get eight lines, meter shaky. My meter's always shaky -- maybe I should say optimistic, or flexible. In any case, more descriptive than prescriptive. I'm a little off-track:

...Your hope
remains unradiated as you row,
not away from hunger, nor the Ukraine,
but toward Olympic gold, an arrow
that glides down Eton Dorney, scull aflame...


The next day at the Kibbitz Room I make confession to Boris over Bloody Marys. I'm writing a sonnet. About the Paralympics. About one particular Paralympian. Boris takes this better than I expect. Especially after I show him the photo on my iPhone. The stuff of poetry, he says.

His advice: I should replace the word "hunger" with "Holomodor" -- literally, "Killing by hunger" in Ukrainian, and usually referring to 1932-33's man-made famine in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. That'll fix the meter, too. It seems a little heavy to me, I explain. I'll save my holomodor for another poem.

I'm enthusiastic about my final flourish, my grand finale, or lack thereof: the sonnet is four lines short. Get it? A curtal sonnet? Boris asks, referring to the variation of sonnet invented by Gerald Manley Hopkins and used in just three of his poems, most notably "Pied Beauty." Mine doesn't have a tail, I explain. Hopkins' math -- 12/2 + 9/2 = 21/2 = 10½ -- served its purpose, but my variation of the form is new. The Oksana Sonnet (alternatively Oksannet, Oksonnet, OK Sonnet, and Masters' Sonnet) reflects, according to my eyeballing of the ESPN photos, Oksana's perfect proportions. Like its curtal cousin, I doubt the Oksannet will ever work well for more than a few poems, but that's enough.

I abandon the Oksannet for a week. I am in Haiti, for work. I can't sleep, despite the dripping luxury of my full-blast AC. Lines six and seven seem weak. "Arrow" is really screwing things up for me. I toil. I tinker. The air conditioning unit's thrum wavers, and I wonder if the generator powering it is running low on diesel. Dammit. The poem, not the air conditioning. The whole thing is so corny, so sentimental. I give up. I work on making cribs for Javier Sicilia's Desert Triptych until I fall asleep.

The next day I watch Olympic basketball on a faux Victorian sofa covered in vinyl to stop my sweat from seeping into its weak wooden frame and ivory poly-silk upholstery. In humid Tabarre, I'm sweating more than most of the Lithuanians on the court. In my frustration, the game of basketball is revealed for all its bathos, the players' maudlin expressions of agony and excitement, confidence and doubt. Grown men running the length of a 91.86-foot-long wooden court with a rubber-bladdered, dimpled leather ball between 29.5 and 30.7 inches in circumference, according to a considerable quantity of arbitrated rules governing their relationship to that ball and the other nine grown men on the court, four of whom attempt to facilitate their strange goal and five of whom attempt to thwart it so that they can do the same thing themselves, on the other side of that wooden court, trying to make that ball move downwards through an 18-inch hoop of metal suspended horizontally from a pane of glass at ten feet from the ground -- and to accomplish that strange feat as many times more than the other five men on the court as possible -- seems almost as ridiculous as a grown man counting syllables and beats on his thumbs, trying to compose a thought-sized box of words about love, or a Grecian urn, or the prison-industrial complex, or birds, or a beautiful and talented American adaptive arm and trunk rower named Oksana Masters. Both tasks -- sport and poetry -- are so ridiculously silly, so absurd, and yet so human, so exciting, so necessary. I am buoyed.

Still, I abandon the sonnet for another two weeks.

I am in Istanbul at the Pera Palace Hotel -- a few rooms down from Room 411, where Agatha Christie finished Murder on the Orient Express, and a few floors up from the room in which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk envisioned the Turkish nation, at the favored hotel of Greta Garbo and Alfred Hitchcock, and even more excitingly for me, where Hemingway used to sip whiskey on the terrace bar off the lobby -- on 2 September 2012, when Oksana Masters and Rob Jones row to a bronze medal in the 2012 Paralympics, less than seven seconds behind Chinese gold medalists Xiaoxen Lou and Fei Tianming, and less than two behind French silver medalists Perle Bouge and Stephane Tardieu. I'm still not happy with my poem. It wouldn't even claim a spot on the podium. But I'm proud of Team Bad Company, of Rob Jones and Oksana Masters, whose efforts seem somehow Herculean, near mythological, in their extending the boundaries of the human body and its capabilities. There is no doubt in my mind that Team Bad Company, should they continue to row together, will win the gold medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil, perhaps an occasion for my next Oksannet.

So here it is, Oksana, strong muse behind this feeble sonnet, with my thanks and admiration:

Oksana Masters

Your body is a sky starred with tattoos
to map your North and South. You climb a rope
with just your arms, you coyly smile, refuse
to live an amputated life. Your hope
remains unradiated as you row
off toward Olympic gold, past the Ukraine,
America, the world, an arrow bowed
across the Eton Dorney, scull aflame
with hope--a nation's, yours, mine--maudlin, yes,
both sport and poem, like all of us, undressed.



3 September 2012, Frankfurt

Around the Web

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