Almanac Book Review: Phil Dimitriadis on Damian Balassone’s ‘Strange Game in a Strange Land’

 

 

 

 

 

Strange Game in a Strange Land: A Poetic Celebration of Australian Rules Football

 

by Damian Balassone

 

Review by Phil Dimitriadis

 

 

The first thing I asked myself when I saw Damian’s book Strange Game in a Strange Land: “Why isn’t Daicos on the front cover?”

 

As I read through the collection I realised that having Daicos on the cover was too obvious.

 

And unnecessary.

 

Robert Flower taking bounces along the wing full-flight was the perfect choice. At once the image elicits affection in fans who love the game. The skill, poise, courage and rhythm Flower displayed when he played remains imprinted in the memories of those who had the privilege to watch him live. Even Collingwood fans respected the Dees’ virtuoso.

 

When I finished reading Damian’s book, one word stayed with me:

 

Affection.

 

Damian’s poetry and prose reminded me about why I fell in love with the game.

 

The introductory story: Afternoon Shadows, takes us to a time and place when a young lad from East Doncaster became enamoured with the footy heroes of the day. Larger than life characters of the VFL in the early 1980s left an impression.

 

 

Rene Kink; Collingwood’s ‘Incredible Hulk’ who resembled the character played on television by Lou Ferringo at the time helped make the connection to the theatre of footy for Balassone.

 

However, it was Daicos who showed you don’t need to be a hulking meat-head to excel in footy. Indeed, poetry, poetics and a love of sport can coexist:

 

“To me artists like Dylan, Lancaster and Wilde are no different to Peter Daicos.…It’s all art to me.”

 

 

Influential artisans leave a space for the imagination to meander, play and explore.

 

Damian’s writing is a welcome respite from the shrill, opinionated, attention-seeking, identity-chasing hot-takes that taint so much footy writing today.

 

A word is not wasted; a beat is not missed.

 

Ode to Simon Prestigiacomo a case in point:

 

‘But let us not forget those men

who turn up time and time again

and duly sacrifice their game

to guard the best and biggest names.’

 

The epigrams and rhyming couplets mirror the bounces of Robert Flower.

 

Spud rubbing mud into Derm’s perm, Don Scott’s dimple, the arm of Harmes, Daisy piercing through a pack, Nonna’s lament or Barry Breen’s behind, leave us with images that remind us of the humour, skill and absurdity of the footy world.

 

Book-ended by two fabulous prose pieces, the final story pays homage to Damian’s late father, Don. It was Don who took Damian to Victoria Park and introduced him to the cauldron, fanaticism and sheer passion that characterized suburban footy before the expansion.

 

Many migrants from Italy and Greece settled in Collingwood during the 1950s. Houses were cheap and work beckoned in the numerous factories in the area. Damian’s grandad Alphonso and Nonna, Concetta along with his uncle Peter and Don, arrived from a town called Sulmona in Italy’s Abruzzo region (Ovid’s birthplace) settled in Magpie land in 1950. Your footy team was your postcode in those days.

 

When Don took Damian to watch a game against Essendon at Victoria Park in 1980, there was no turning back for the kid who loved ‘The Hulk’ and marvelled at the wizardry of Daicos in an atmosphere infused with pathos.

 

I was at the same game with my brother and my cousins. Ensconced in the RT Rush Stand, we watched the Pies beat the Bombers by four points after trailing by fifteen points at three-quarter time. The old ground was rocking at the final siren and Good Old Collingwood Forever reverberated over the smoky suburb.

 

A memory like that stays with you for life.

 

I got to know Damo through the Footy Almanac. In 2008 we both contributed pieces to a site called ABC Footy Unleashed, which was moderated by the prolific John Harms and prefigured www.footyalmanac.com.au . If there was a Hall of Fame for ‘foreword’ writers, Harmsy would be the first inducted.

 

Damian and I share a love of Collingwood, Daicos and the flying elbow of pro wrestler, Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage. We still share wrestling videos on social media today because we appreciate the absurd theatre, signposts and history that comes with the ‘sport’ and its characters. It’s the same with footy.

 

We fast-forward to 2020 and we are without footy for the first time in VFL/AFL history. Reading Strange Game in a Strange Land has alerted me to what I miss about being a footy fan.

 

You can forget about COVID and read poetry influenced by Ovid.

 

Wit, wisdom, whimsy and wordplay are on display in spades in this wonderful collection.

 

May Balassone’s poetry always prosper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strange Game in a Strange Land, a volume of short, playful poems about Flower, Daicos, Doull, Blight and co, is available from Wilkinson Publishing or directly from the author.

 

 

 

About Phillip Dimitriadis

Carer/Teacher/Writer. Author of Fandemic: Travels in Footy Mythology. World view influenced by Johnny Cash, Krishnamurti, Larry David, Toni Morrison and Billy Picken.

Comments

  1. Rick Kane says

    Terrific review Mr Lord Bogan. This is a book to own and devour. I love DBs poems, their interplay with footy’s many mysteries and life’s ordinary grandeur. If only he barracked for the Hawks!

    Cheers

  2. Adam Muyt says

    You’ve convinced me I need to get hold of this book, Phil.

  3. E.regnans says

    Love it P Dimitiriadis. I miss your observations.
    Congratulations D Balassone.

    I’m off to place an order.

    — love the R Flower image. Looks like the work of 4boat Chris Rees.

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Cheers Slim, Adam and ER.

    It’s a great collection for lovers of words, rhythm n’ footy.
    You can randomly open a page and find another gem:

    ‘I climb the neighbour’s back veranda
    and shake their precious jacaranda
    until I hear the thrilling sound
    of leather landing on the ground’

    Ahh, that wonderful feeling as a kid when you get the ball down from a tree and play on !

    Congratulations Damian. Terrific stuff.

    Do yourselves a favour, Knackers.

  5. Luke Reynolds says

    Well said Phil. I’ve just finished my copy and loved it (which I knew I would), you capture it’s essence perfectly.

    Love a book you can open up randomly and just read something, which I did for a while, before knuckling down and reading it from cover to cover.

    Damian is the Daicos of poetry.

  6. Braham Dabscheck says

    I have just read ‘Strange game in a Strange Land’. What a delight: amusing, insightful and moving. Great review of something wondrous.

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