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The Poetic 'Shadow' Of Memory, Mortality

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and essayist William Stanley Merwin was known in the 1960s as an anti-war poet. Now an environmental activist, Merwin has published a new book of poems, The Shadow of Sirius, which addresses themes of memory and mortality.

21:28

Other segments from the episode on August 4, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 16, 2008: Interview with W.S. Merwin; Interview with Willie O'Ree; Review of top 10 albums of the year.

Transcript

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The Poetic 'Shadow' Of Memory, Mortality

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. When my guest, W.S. Merwin, won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2005, the judges' citation said, Merwin's poems speak from a lifelong belief in the power of words to awaken our drowsy souls and see the world with compassionate interconnection. In an LA Times review last year of his collection, "The Book of Fables," Amy Gerstler described Merwin as quote, "a post-Presbyterian Zen poet and channeler of ancient paradoxes. He strikes a balance between the world we know with our senses and those occult regions we are only intermittently privy to," unquote.

Merwin was born in 1927, the son of a Presbyterian minister. When he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1971, he was best known for his poems against the war in Vietnam. He now lives in Hawaii where he's active in environmental issues. His new collection of poems, "The Shadow of Sirius," is about memory and mortality. Let's start with Merwin's poem, "A Likeness."

Mr. WILLIAM STANLEY MERWIN (Poet; Author, "The Shadow of Sirius"): (Reading) Almost to your birthday, and as I am getting dressed alone in the house, a button comes off, and once I find a needle with an eye big enough for me to try to thread it - and at last, I've sewed the button on. I open an old picture of you who always did such things by magic. One photograph found after you died, of you at 20, beautiful in a way I would never see. Well, that was nine years before I was born. But the picture is faded. Suddenly spots have marred it. Maybe it is past repair. I have only what I remember.

GROSS: I love that last line, I have only what I remember, that you have this photograph of your mother - I assume it's your mother.

Mr. MERWIN: Yes.

GROSS: And the photograph is marred, and you only have what you remember. You know, memory is always such an issue for me, you know. Do you struggle to chronicle your life, to keep the photograph, to document it, to keep journals, to hold onto other memories, or do you accept that you have only what you remember?

Mr. MERWIN: I think we do both. I think we always do both. I think memory is essential to what we are. If we - we wouldn't be able to talk to each other without memory, and what we think of as the present really is the past. It is made out of the past. The present is - the present is an absolutely transparent moment that only great saints ever see occasionally. But the present that we think of as the present is made up of the past, and the past is always one moment. It's what happened three minutes ago, and one minute, it's what happened 30 years ago. And they flow into each other in waves that we can't predict and that we keep discovering in dreams, which keep bringing up feelings and moments, some of which we never actually saw.

But those moment themselves bring up the feelings that were - that we had forgotten we had. And it's all memory. So I think - I know - I think the idea that memory is somehow sentimental or nostalgic - nostalgia itself is - the etymology of nostalgia is homecoming, and homecoming is what we all believe in. I mean, if we didn't believe in homecoming, we wouldn't be able to bear the day.

GROSS: As you get older, do you spend more time thinking about your early memories, your childhood, your formative years?

Mr. MERWIN: I do. You know, I didn't like my years in Scranton, Pennsylvania particularly. They were very important. They were from the age of nine to the age of about 14. And then I find that the props and the scenes, the light, all sorts of things from there come back with an increasing reality, an increasing freshness that they probably didn't even have for me at the time or that I didn't notice at the time. And this is true of different periods of my life, and I think this happens to everybody.

I think this is one of the benefits of getting older, that one has that perspective on things farther away. One is so caught up in middle years in the idea of accomplishing something when in fact the full accomplishment is always with one.

GROSS: My guest is poet W.S. Merwin, and he has a new collection of poems called "The Shadow of Sirius." Several of the poems in your book are about your parents. This is one of them. It's called "A Single Autumn." Would you introduce it for us and read it?

Mr. MERWIN: Yes. This is something I think I had thought about quite often, and my parents died very close together. I thought they weren't very close together, but actually, one of their great gifts to me was that neither of them turned out to be afraid of dying at all. And in quite different ways, they died without any expression of anxiety or of dread or of clutching at anything else, and that's a great gift to be given, that feeling of no fear. And I think I inherited it from them very early.

But after my mother died - I was away in Europe when she died - and when I came back, the original, the first funeral - I had - it was already over, and I moved right into the house, I think, against the advice of many friends and spent something like a month or six weeks there. And giving away their belongings to their friends and getting to know their friends, and then finally giving away the furniture things to my sister and being there in a totally empty house before I just left it and went back to New York.

And this is about that time of being alone in that empty house when, if it hit me hard, I was all by myself and it didn't matter. And if it didn't, I went through all of the feelings and no feelings that one has at that time, noticing that, you know, there were many things that we would never - bits of conversation that we would never finish. And so this is a poem about that. It's called, "A Single Autumn."

(Reading) The year my parents died, on that summer, on that fall, three months and three days apart, I moved into the house where they had lived their last years. It had ever been theirs and was still theirs in that way for a while. Echoes in every room without a sound. All the things that we had never been able to say, I could not remember. Doll collection in a China cabinet, plates stacked on shelves, lace on dropleaf tables, a dry branch of bittersweets before a hall mirror, we're all planning to eat. The glass door of the house remained closed. The days had turned cold. But out in the tall hickories, the blaze of autumn had begun on its own. I could do anything.

GROSS: God, I love that last line.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I could do anything. And I think - what were some of the things that you wouldn't have done when your parents were alive living in that house?

Mr. MERWIN: Well, you know, all the inhibitions one has with parents. And my father was a very - when he was younger, it was a very repressive, capricious, punitive, incomprehensible, distant person. And I've freed myself from that, insofar as one ever frees oneself from any such influence fairly early. But one was always aware of the things that would trouble either of them, and all of those things were gone. I mean, I could say or do or think or go or meet or talk to anything and anybody the way I wanted to. I was as free there as I was anywhere in the world. And it was a sort of desolate freedom, of course.

GROSS: When you were going through your parents' possessions and figuring out what to give away, what to keep, what to throw away, what did you decide to keep?

Mr. MERWIN: Not very much. My father was a minister, and he asked me to burn all his sermons. That was - I mean, they were terrible sermons.

GROSS: What made them terrible? Why do you describe them as terrible?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, he never finished a sentence, you know, and they were...

GROSS: Well, you never even have periods in your poems. That's really funny.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MERWIN: No, but these were all dashes, like Emily Dickinson. And they were very unoriginal, you know, and he just obviously didn't want them kept.

GROSS: Did you want to keep them for yourself or did you obey the wishes?

Mr. MERWIN: I did want to keep some, and I wanted to keep various correspondences that my mother had there that were marked "burn this," so I burned them, and sometimes I feel like Eric Brod(ph) - you know, the way Eric Brod must have felt very pleased that he kept Kafka's papers in spite of Kafka's wishes. I have sometimes wished that I had just read through them and kept the ones I wanted to, but I didn't.

You know, at that moment you are very eager to do what they wanted to you to. But I kept strange things. I kept things that my mother was growing in the garden. I potted them up and took them back to the apartment and grew them in New York. One or two last bits of clothing that were hanging in the closet. Very little, you know. They weren't people who had much money, and there was nothing of great value there. And all odds and ends. There were a few small things from my grandfather. I mean, a pen knife from my grandfather, little tiny things like that that would have meant nothing to anybody else.

And all the other things that I kept from the house - I gave my sister all the furniture, and we divided everything up quite equably, and I kept all of the papers. So there were diaries and day books and account books and all sorts of stuff that I used later.

GROSS: When you say used, you mean used in poems?

Mr. MERWIN: Yes, used in poems and used in writing unframed originals, and I owe her - she was an orphan. It was her father - her father had worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and he had passes for all of the railroads that existed in the very beginning of the 20th century and that had ceased to exist. It was wonderful taking out his book of passes and seeing all of the nonexistent railroads that he could ride free on.

GROSS: Oh, that sounds wonderful. So you still have that?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, yeah. I still have that, yes.

GROSS: My guest is poet W.S. Merwin, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. He has a new collection called "The Shadow of Sirius." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is poet W.S. Merwin, and he has a new collection of poems, and it's called "The Shadow of Sirius."

Your father was a minister. What were you taught about God? What did you believe about God when you were young?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, I had to learn the Catechism, but it was mostly proscriptive, the things you couldn't do. There was no card playing in the house and no dancing and not much of anything that was fun. And that gradually all shelled off. He got better about it as I got older, and then he became a chaplain in the Second World War and went overseas. So in my early adolescence, I was freed of all that, and I managed to sort of get along with him much better in later years. But he was pretty remote. He didn't know how to be a father.

GROSS: Did he know that you became a poet? Did he think poetry was frivolous?

Mr. MERWIN: No, he didn't. He thought it was fine. And when I felt that I was, in effect, a pacifist at the end of World War II and I was put in the psycho ward in a Chelsea Naval Hospital...

GROSS: You were?

Mr. MERWIN: I was, yeah.

GROSS: You were put in the mental ward for being a pacifist?

Mr. MERWIN: Yeah, because I had enlisted, you see, when I was 17, and all of these - all of this cogitation about it had come later, and I finally asked to be put in a (unintelligible) because I thought I'd made a terrible mistake. And I should never have missed it. I don't really believe in what we're doing. And so, I was instead put in the psycho ward, and I was pretty lucky, I guess.

But he came to the Chelsea hospital and talked to the chaplain there and came to see me as a visitor and said, you must follow your own convictions. I thought, that's pretty good, you know, he's never said that before.

GROSS: What year was this that you were put in the psycho ward?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, when was it? '46, I guess.

GROSS: So what was your treatment?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, it was - they tried to scare me, I guess. But otherwise, it was basically rather humane. I was locked up. I was in a big ward, and there were some people who had real trouble. I mean, hallucinations and DTs from alcoholism and brain damage from active duty - all mixed in together. I made some good friends there in the ward whom I never saw again.

GROSS: Did being locked up in a psychiatric ward make you question your own sanity? Were you able to be confident the whole time that you were locked up under false pretences and you were perfectly sane and you were just dissenting?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, I realized that, that it was because of dissenting, but I didn't question - I mean, the more I thought about - I thought, I can't allow myself to be trained to kill on orders, to take life on orders. I mean, I really took the idea of not killing seriously, and I thought, whatever I'm told, killing is still my responsibility if I do it. I can't say it's because I was ordered to because I don't really believe that. I don't believe I would kill on orders. I don't believe I would take life because somebody told me to. And these are people who are doing it for reasons of their own and for reasons some of which I don't know, and these are the people I'm supposed to kill are people whom I don't know.

I can imagine circumstances in which I might do it. I can imagine being in the resistance or something like that where I would do it, but it would be extreme circumstances in which I could feel that I was taking that responsibility on myself, just as we do when we kill a mosquito or an ant. I don't think we have a right to take life - any life. I think we take it knowing that we do and knowing that we have no right to do it, and we're responsible for it.

GROSS: I don't know how you feel about talking about this, but how do you feel about getting older? You're in your early 80s now and dealing with the dimming of some of the senses and a body that isn't as strong as it was. I don't know if you have a lot of pain, you know, physical ailments associated with that, but you have to accept a certain amount of physical diminishment as you age. How are you at accepting that or dealing with it?

Mr. MERWIN: The one thing so far that I find a little difficult is that - I've always had wonderful eyes. My eyes aren't as good as they used to be, and so I have to get used to that. But I have a great guide in this matter. I had a magnificent creature, an incredible character, a black Chow who at the age of 8 went blind, totally blind, and you had to tell people about that because she always knew everything. And she would guide me if the light got - if I was out somewhere and I was taking her for a walk and forgot a flashlight and it got dark. She'd take me home.

And I thought, you know, the way she confronted absolutely everything without fear, without panic, without anything of the kind, this is one of the great guiding experiences of my life. And so as my eyes get worse, I think of Muku(ph) more and more often, and that's a very pleasant thing to do because I think, how would Muku have dealt with this situation? And you know very well how she would have done this thing.

GROSS: So how long ago was she your dog?

Mr. MERWIN: Oh, she died four years ago.

GROSS: Is this the dog you refer to as a dog grief in one of your poems?

Mr. MERWIN: She was one of them. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MERWIN: There were two of them who died very close together.

GROSS: Right. Right. We have time for one more poem, and I'd like to ask you to close with a poem called "Rain Light." If you can introduce it for us first?

Mr. MERWIN: I shall. It's again a poem in the third and the last section of the book. And it's about - what is it about? It's about the very thing we were talking about. I mean, what happens as you face the fact that the entire world is slipping, literally dissolving around you, around us? You know, we have that feeling about our civilization and about our species and everything else is all endangered. And indeed, it is. And we either face that as a recognition that that's our moment or we sort of groan and dread it, which is a waste of time.

But this is not a rational poem at all. It's called "Rain Light," the early, early morning rain, which is something that I love very much.

(Reading) All day the stars watch from long ago. My mother said, I am going now. When you are alone you will be all right. Whether or not you know, you will know. Look at the old house in the dawn rain. All the flowers are forms of water. The sun reminds them through a white cloud, touches the patchwork spread on the hill, the washed colors of the afterlife that lived there long before you were born. See how they wake without a question, even though the whole world is burning.

GROSS: W.S. Merwin, thank you so much for talking with us and for reading some of your poems. Thank you.

Mr. MERWIN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: W.S. Merwin's new collection of poems is called "The Shadow of Sirius." That's S-I-R-I-U-S. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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NHL's First Black Skater On Integrating The Ice

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Most American sports fans know that in 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball. Far fewer know Willie O'Ree, a man often called the Jackie Robinson of hockey.

Fifty years ago, O'Ree took the ice in Boston Garden as a member of the hometown Bruins and became the first black player in the National Hockey League. O'Ree's appearance was scarcely noticed at first, but as he toured other NHL cities, he endured taunts and injuries from other players and racial insults from fans.

The Canadian-born O'Ree was lightning fast on his skates. His career is even more remarkable considering the fact that he played most of it practically blind in one eye, something most of his coaches and teammates never knew.

O'Ree is now director of youth development for the NHL's Diversity Program. He was honored earlier this year in a ceremony at Boston Garden. He spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Willie O'Ree, welcome to Fresh Air. You grew up as - if I've read the stories accurately - one of two black families in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in Canada, right?

Mr. WILLIE O'REE (Director, Youth Development, Diversity Program, National Hockey League; Former NHL Hockey Player): That's correct, sir.

DAVIES: Town of 10,000 people. And you started skating when?

Mr. O'REE: I started skating at age of two, and I started playing organized hockey at the age of five and kind of just played up through the ranks. I had a rink in my backyard, which my dad prepared for me. I used to skate to school, and so basically, I was on the ice every day, and there was always the availability of ice.

DAVIES: I picture you eating your Cornflakes with your skates on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. O'REE: Oh, I used to do a lot of things with my skates on.

DAVIES: You were fast, right? Is that what made you special?

Mr. O'REE: Yes. I was considered a very fast skater, and I had - I got a lot of breakaways due to the fact that from a dead stop, I could take about four or five strides and I'd be at top speed, where other players may take seven or eight. The advantage I had was I could break away from my check and position myself to, you know, get in the position to receive the puck (unintelligible), and you know, have an opportunity to score goals.

DAVIES: So in your teens, you played junior hockey. You do very well. And then, I guess you went pro with the Quebec Aces in Quebec Hockey League, right?

Mr. O'REE: Right. 1956, '57, but...

DAVIES: Right. Now that was pro. That wasn't the National Hockey League, but...

Mr. O'REE: No. It was a professional league, one step below the national league.

DAVIES: Was it unusual to be a black man in that league?

Mr. O'REE: Yes. There were only two black players playing at that time. There was times when I was the only black player playing in a league. And you know, I just wanted to be accepted as just another player because at that time, I had the skills and the ability to play in the league.

DAVIES: And were you accepted like anybody else?

Mr. O'REE: Well, no, not really. I mean, I fought a lot racial remarks from fans, players on the opposition, you know. And again, they just tried to kind of goad me and tried to get me off my game. But you know, I tried to stay true and just go out and play.

DAVIES: Now it was, I guess, during this period of your career, before you made it to the NHL, that you had the injury which would really affect your career, right?

Mr. O'REE: Yes.

DAVIES: Tell us about that.

Mr. O'REE: Yes, it did. It happened in my last year of junior. I was playing in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada for a farm team of the Montreal Canadians. We were playing in Guelph in the junior league, and we didn't wear any helmets, no face shields, no mask. I get the puck, and I'm beside the net, and I see one of my defense men out in the slot area. So I make a fake pass, and I go around and I pass the puck out to Kent Douglas. He later on played for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I put a perfect pass on Kent, and he winds up and blasts the puck, and so I go in front of the net for a deflection. And then I went to turn my head around to see where the puck was, and when the shot left the player's stick, it was diverted off a stick and come up and hit me flat over the right eye, broke my nose, broke part of my jaw. And you know, I dropped down on my knees. I was still conscious, but I could feel the blood running down my face. And the next thing I knew, I'm placed in an ambulance, taken to the hospital, and I was in the hospital for about four or five days.

It was what this doctor told me that actually changed my life. His name was Dr. Henderson. And I'm laying in my hospital bed in the recovery room, and he comes in and he says, Mr. O'Ree. He says, I'm sorry to inform you that you're going to be blind in your right eye and you'll never play hockey again. The impact of the puck completely shattered the retina and there was nothing we could do. Well, I kind of sunk back in my bed, and the dreams and goals that I set for myself of one day playing professional and hopefully getting into the National Hockey League seemingly were gone.

DAVIES: But it wasn't the end. You simply refused to accept that, right?

Mr. O'REE: I did. I accepted the fact that I was blind, but I didn't accept the fact that I'd never play hockey again because the - first of all, the doctor, he was a fine surgeon and did everything humanly possible, you know, you to save the sight in my eye, but there was too much damage. But he was wrong about the second thing, about not playing hockey again because he didn't know the dream and the goal that I had set for myself.

So, I got out of the hospital, and I started back skating again. And the only difference I could notice about myself is I had this blind spot in my right eye. I could skate as fast as ever. I could shoot the puck, do everything I did before.

DAVIES: That's a pretty big difference, isn't it, Willie?

Mr. O'REE: Oh, yeah. There was - you know, I had to - there was a big adjustment. I'm a left-hand shot and I'm playing left wing. So to compensate, I had to turn my head all the way around to the right to pick the puck up with my left eye because I couldn't see it out of my right eye. And consequently, I'd overskate the puck. Going in on the net, you know, I'd miss the net, hit the goal post. And you know, I'm saying, what is wrong? What is wrong? And I just told myself, I said, Willie, don't worry about what you can't see. Just concentrate on what you can see.

DAVIES: So it's in 1958 that you have, you know, what's called your Jackie Robinson moment, right? You got a call from a National Hockey League team, the Boston Bruins. Tell us about that.

Mr. O'REE: That's correct. I got the notice to meet the Bruins in Montreal to play two games against the Montreal Canadians on January the 18th, 1958. I stepped on the ice at the Montreal Forum and became the first black player to play in the National Hockey League.

DAVIES: Let me ask you about this moment because, you know, when - you know, everybody's story is different. You know, your story is different from Jackie Robinson's. But there's a point of comparison that interests me here. Before he broke into baseball, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, spent a lot of time talking to him about what he might expect breaking that color barrier. Was there any kind of discussion like that about you being...

Mr. O'REE: Yes.

DAVIES: Yeah. Tell us about that.

Mr. O'REE: Yes. Before I stepped on the ice, we were in the dressing room, the coach, Milt Schmidt, the general manager at that time, Lynn Patrick, sat me down, and they said, Willie, you know, this is the first game that you're going to be playing. You know, you're going to be the first black player to play in the National Hockey League. You may get exposed to racial remarks on the ice from fans or the opposing team. But don't let it worry you. Go out and play hockey, and the Bruin organization is behind you 100 percent. We'll take care of everything else.

See, I was no stranger to the Montreal fans because just a week prior to that, I was Willie O'Ree with the Quebec Aces jersey on.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. O'REE: You know, and so - and when I'm skating around on January the 18th, Saturday night with the Bruins, I could see several fans pointing in my direction and they're saying, oh, there's that black kid. He's up with the Bruins now. There was no big deal made about it, nothing in the papers saying that O'Ree broke color barrier, first of his race to play in the National Hockey League. We were very fortunate that we beat Canadians that night, three nothing. We shut them all. We get on the train after the game. The Montreal Canadians had their car. The Boston Bruins had their car. We go to Boston and played there on Sunday, and the Canadians beat us, five to three. And then I go back to Quebec to finish up the season.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Willie O'Ree, the first black player ever to play in the National Hockey League. He's currently the director of youth development for the NHL's Diversity Program. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Willie O'Ree. He is the National Hockey League's director of youth development for its Diversity Program. He was also, 50 years ago, the first black player ever to take the ice in a National Hockey League game.

So it was in 1961 when you came back up to the NHL. You were there for - is it 43 games? Is that right?

Mr. O'REE: Yes.

DAVIES: And so in this case, you're playing your games. You're touring every other city. Tell us what you experienced from other teams.

Mr. O'REE: Well, other teams - I never had any problems in Toronto or Montreal because I was a Canadian boy. And back then, 98 percent of the players that were playing in the National Hockey were all Canadians. I did experience some problems in Chicago. My first trip into Chicago, you know, there were players that, you know, made some racial slurs towards me. But there was one player in particular that - I go in and get a shot on the net, and the goalie makes a stop, and I get the puck, and I go in behind the net, and then I turned one way to come out, and then I stopped and went to turn - to pass the puck out into the slot area, and one of the players came on my blind side. I couldn't see him, and he butt-ended me in the mouth, split my nose, split my lip, knocked my two front teeth out, and then he - he just stood there and kind of - he made a couple of racial remarks, but then he just stood there and laughed at me. And it wasn't the...

DAVIES: When you said butt-ended you, you mean what?

Mr. O'REE: He took the butt end of a stick, you know, the shaft of the stick, and he exposed about six inches of it. And then what he did is he just slammed me with the stick in the face and knocked my two front teeth out and split - broke my nose and my, you know, my teeth. Just - he knocked them out clean.

So I as mentioned, he stood there, made a couple racial remarks. But it wasn't the racial remarks that set me off. It was the laughing that, like, you know, he was a big right winger.

DAVIES: Eric Nesterenko, right? Yeah.

Mr. O'REE: How did you come up with that name? That's the gentleman.

DAVIES: This incident has been written about widely. And I don't want you to offend anybody in the audience, but do you remember exactly what he said to you?

Mr. O'REE: Well, it was the N word, yeah, the N word. But that isn't what set me off. He just stood there and laughed, like, you know, you're not going to do anything. So I had to do something, so I hit him over the head with my stick. Back then, as I said, we didn't wear any helmets, and I cut him for quite a few number of stitches right on the forehead. And then, I knew that I was going to have fight. So immediately, I dropped my gloves. My stick broke. He grabbed me and hit me a couple of times, and I grabbed him and I got a couple of just light shots in. And then the linesmen come in. They break us up. We're both thrown out of the game. I go into the dressing room, and they stitched me up and plugged my nose.

I wanted to come back out and sit on the bench, at least, with the team, but Milt Schmidt, our coach, was - he was fearful for my life because he could hear the fans saying, you know, if this N player ever comes back out, he says, he's going to have bodily injury to him.

DAVIES: Take us back to that moment. I mean, here you are. You finally make it to the NHL. This guy cheap-shots you, calls you a racial slur, laughs at you, you retaliate, you fight, and there you are, you're stitched up in a room, and you can't even go back out because of the racial hostility that would rain upon you.

Mr. O'REE: Yes.

DAVIES: Did you wonder whether it's all worth it? What were you feeling then?

Mr. O'REE: You know, you took the words right out of my mouth, Dave. They had two police officers stand out in front of the - guarding the dressing room, and I'm pacing back and forth in the dressing room, back and forth, and I turned the lights out in the dressing room, and I just sat in the dark for about two, three minutes. And I said, Willie, it's just not worth it. Why don't you just - you know, you can go back to your hometown. You can play hockey. You don't need to put up with all this.

And then I turned the lights on and I said, no, the hell with it. I said, if I'm going to leave the league, I'm going to leave it because I don't have the skills and the ability to play anymore. I'm not going to leave it because some guy is trying to goad me and get me out of the league. So I continued to play. We came back to Chicago on three or four different, you know, occasions. And you know, I always - anytime Nesterenko was on the ice, I always knew where he was, and I always kept my stick up to protect myself. But that was probably...

DAVIES: Did you ever talk to him about it or have any other encounter with him?

Mr. O'REE: Yes. In 1991, the National Hockey League All-Star Game was in Chicago. I get a phone call and a letter from the National Hockey League saying that we'd like to invite you and your wife to Chicago for guest of the NHL. I said to myself, well, why are you inviting me? I haven't played in the league in 30 years. Why would you want to invite me to an all-star game? They said, well, we realize that you were the Jackie Robinson of hockey, and you opened doors and broke down barriers for other players of color to play. So I went.

We go to this function. I saw hockey players that I'd played with and against for 30 years, ever since I left the league. So my wife wanted a glass of wine, so I go out to the - they had an outside bar out in the lobby area, and I go out, and the bartender's there, and I said, I'd like a glass of wine and a light beer, please. So I'm the only one standing there. Who comes straight up beside me is Eric Nesterenko. He's standing there, and he looks down at me, and he says, hi, Willie. How's it doing? And I said, fine, Eric. How's it going? And then I said, well, let's get it on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

If it's been 30 years, let's get it on. And I was ready to just go with him right there. But he took his drink, and I took the drinks and went back to the table, and I saw him a couple of times at the rest of the evening but at a distance.

DAVIES: We should add that Eric Nesterenko has been interviewed about this by folks who've heard about the incident.

Mr. O'REE: Yeah, he doesn't recall the incident. I heard that.

DAVIES: Yeah, he doesn't recall having said anything racial, apparently. That's what he has said, and that's his version, and he has stuck to it.

Mr. O'REE: That's my version. I'm going to stick to it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You know, when you played with the Bruins back in 1961, there you are, playing at the highest level of the game, scoring goals, and you're blind in one eye. Did anybody know it? Did anybody even know it?

Mr. O'REE: Well, I told my younger sister, Betty, who lives in Montreal, and I told my friend that I played with, this other black hockey player, Stan Maxwell(ph). But I swore them to secrecy. I said, don't say anything. I said, I don't want it to get around because if it does, it'll probably hinder my chance of, you know, getting into the National Hockey League.

So anyway, that went with nothing said. Even people today don't realize I played 21 years professional with one eye. But in 1961, I was traded to the Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League, and when I arrived in Los Angeles, Alfie Pike(ph) was the coach, and he had only two right wingers and he had about six or seven left wingers. And he says, Willie, have you ever played right wing? I said, no, Alfie. I said, I've always played left wing. He says, I sure could use your speed on the right side. Why don't you give it a try?

So now I move over to the right side, and I don't have to be turning my head to the left to pick up the puck because I can see the puck on the play, and I won the goal-scoring twice, in 1965 in Los Angeles and 1969 in San Diego with the San Diego Gulls, and I was voted on four All-Star teams only due to the fact that I had switched over to the right side and played.

DAVIES: You continued to play hockey until 1980. But after you broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League, you know, there wasn't a flood of black players getting into the league. Why do you think there hasn't been more diversity in the NHL?

Mr. O'REE: Well, first of all, hockey is a very unique sport. I mean, you can take a basketball, a football, a baseball, a soccerball, and you know, you can get in a room and kick it around or throw it around. But in order to play hockey, you need to get on the ice. You need to get on the ice to develop your skills, and 99 percent of the black players or the players of color that are playing in the league today, they had the opportunity to get on the ice. And basically, that's what you need.

And being involved with the Diversity Program, we have 39 non-profit programs throughout North America, and I can tell you that we're developing more players of color now than ever before. There are more kids playing hockey today than ever before. There are more girls playing hockey today than ever before.

DAVIES: Well, Willie O'Ree, thanks for sharing some memories with us.

Mr. O'REE: Oh, it certainly has been a pleasure, Dave.

GROSS: Willie O'Ree broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League 50 years ago. He spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies. Dave is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Coming up, our rock critic, Ken Tucker, plays us some of his favorite recordings of the year. This is Fresh Air.
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Year In Review: The Top Pop Of 2008

TERRY GROSS, host:

Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, says, this was a year when lots of artists made lots of good music. Here's Ken's roundup of some of his favorites from 2008.

(Soundbite of song "Sure Hope You Mean It")

Mr. RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) Sure hope you mean it. Sure hope you mean it. Sure hope you love me girl. Sure hope you love me like you say you do. Sure hope you mean it. Sure hope you love me girl.

KEN TUCKER: Looking at the sales charts and noticing what the media was talking about and listening to, I come away knowing there wasn't any consensus about what kind of pop music year this has been. Certain generalities prevail. Sincerely-phrased pop and hip-hop sold the most, whether we're talking about the felicitous jangle of the Jonas Brothers or the realistic romanticism of the rapper singer, T.I.

In country music, which always pays lip service to its past as a way of staying connected to earnestness, I ended up believing that the year's most old-fashioned act is one of that industry's youngest, 18-year-old Taylor Swift, who put out a sophomore album filled with singular, first-person singular compositions. She may quote from Eminem on stage and market herself like a Disney factory pop star, but what's more down home than believing you could convince a guy you're his true love, if only you could just phrase it persuasively enough?

(Soundbite of song "You Belong to Me")

Ms. TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) You're on the phone with your girlfriend, she's upset. She's going off about something that you said because she doesn't get your humor like I do. I'm in my room, it's a typical Tuesday night. I'm listening to the kind of music she doesn't like. And she'll never know your story like I do. But she wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts. She's cheer captain and I'm on the bleachers. Dreaming aboutthe day when you wake up and find that what you're looking for has been here the whole time. If you could see...

TUCKER: Every year now for the past decade since the neo-soul movement became a marketing term, a few musicians put out albums that attempt to salute, evoke, imitate or reinvent the soul music era of the late '60s and early '70s. Too often, they're nearly well-intentioned items of nostalgia.

Finally, this year, Raphael Saadiq figured out how to do it right. His album uses soul music as a genre, as a technique, the way a visual artist might use collage or a poet might use the sonnet - not as an end in itself but as a framework, a set of tools to built a strong, new structure. That's what Saadiq did so vibrantly here on a song such as, "Let's Take a Walk."

(Soundbite of song "Let's Take a Walk")

Mr. RAPHAEL SAADIQ: (Singing) I'm ready to go, go grab your coat. It's hard to hold. I'm ready to let go. Yeah, the mood is right. The city's bright. Hey, don't you fight. I know the time is right. Girl my lips is what I need you to have. Girl,let's take a walk outside. Let's take a walk.

TUCKER: One of my favorite albums of the year was one I didn't review on Fresh Air at all because it was so gleefully profane and so resistant to brief synopsis. The DJ, Greg Gillis, who uses the stage name Girl Talk, put out the album "Feed the Animals." It consists of literally hundreds of snippets of songs from those of Metallica to the Carpenters to create a densely layered slab of pleasure. Anywhere you cut into this rich cake, you come up with delicious morsels. Listen to the way Girl Talk moves from Roy Orbison to Nirvana in about a minute of one cut called "In Step."

(Soundbite of song "In Step")

GIRL TALK: (Singing) Anything you want, you got it. Anything you need, you got it. Anything at all, you got it. Baby! Cooling, cooling, cooling, cooling by day then at night, working up a sweat. One, two, three!

TUCKER: The year's finest rediscovered music came from two of the most reliable sources conceivable, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan. "Hank Williams: The Unreleased Recordings" collected three discs of Williams' live radio performances in 1951 when he was 27 years old, most of it religious music with a honky-tonk rhythm section.

Bob Dylan's sanctioned "Bootleg Series" had a Volume 8 called "Tell Tale Signs" that consisted of outtakes or alternate versions of his more recent material. A lot of it was great, ornery, doomstruck music.

(Soundbite of song "Everything is Broken")

Mr. BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Broken lines, broken strings. Broken leaf on broken tree. Broken treaties, broken vows. Broken hands on broken plows. And he is running, honey. And he is joking. Nothing's working. Everything broken.

TUCKER: One singer-songwriter who comes out of both the Dylan and punk rock traditions without sounding like either is Alejandro Escovedo. His album, "Real Animal," was musical autobiography of the most self-effacing sort, and as such, one of the year's most modest yet passionate collections.

(Soundbite of song "Always a Friend")

Mr. ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO: (Singing) Wasn't I always a friend to you? Wasn't I always a friend to you? Do you wanna be my friend? Do you wanna be my friend? Every once in a while, honey, let your love show. Every once in a while, honey, let yourself go. Nobody gets hurt, no. Nobody gets hurt. We came here as two, we laid down as one. I don't care if I'm not your only one. What I see in you, you see in me. But if I be wrong, smoke my smoke, drink my wine. bury my snake-skin boots somewhere I'll never find. Still be your lover, baby.

TUCKER: In general, I favored new music over comebacks, a big yea for the band TV On The Radio's album, "Dear Science." A big shrug for the band still known as Guns 'N' Roses, which finally released the album, "Chinese Democracy," after tinkering on it for about 15 years. Between you and me, I'd rather listen to Britney Spears' newly energetic squeals than Axel Rose's labored squeals.

The year's most neglected, underrated recording? The two-disc live album by America's finest art rockers, The Fiery Furnaces. The brother-sister duo of Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger called their collection "Remember." And this is what Frank Zappa would have sounded like had he had any poetry in his soul and the trilling, thrilling voice of Eleanor Friedberger. And for me, poetry and thrills are what rock n' roll is all about.

(Soundbite of song "Japanese Slippers")

THE FIERY FURNACES: (Singing) Down at the shell shed the boys are picking at their pearls. The hole in my mitten lets the rain get in. I bought 22 ounces from the petrol park, waiting at the light; I'm never gonna make it back in time. So Geraldine and me can begin before Mister Raymond and his Japanese slippers comes creeping in...

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly. Ken's list of his favorite music of the year can be found on our Web site, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. I'm Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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