Poetry | June 01, 2003

1.            Ali and Frazier, 1975

 

From this moment on remember

that everything they do, no matter

what, is beautiful. Make no mistake.

When Ali leans in with his left

he cares so much about how

it feels, cares more even than

big Joe Frazier, who only cares

that it’s happening, whose concerns

are slowly turning internal. There

is the audience screaming. So many faces.

The third man in the ring, holding up fingers.

Looking, looking, looking, looking.

There is the tin taste of blood

and how Frazier’s hearing fades like when

he was a boy in a tub of water, leaning

his head back into the cavernous echoes.

He is alone inside his body,

like one who enters a glistening

ballroom from a long narrow hallway

and loses a breath because the world has

suddenly become so much more grand,

realizes that he is part of something

which hardly concerns him at all.

Moments ago Ali was in his dressing room,

talking himself into the ring,

a white hot cloth across his eyes. Now

he is listening to muscles and blood.

To what muscles and blood could want

with another body. Coming to terms

so quickly with what will give way,

and what will not. Ali is talking to him

now, so close, he is asking

Do you want more?

Did you believe it would be any different?

Are you going to give me everything?

 

2.          Ali Among Children

 

When the dancing could become dangerous,

but doesn’t , not yet. They will run out onto

dirt roads in shoes or without shoes. They will

come early in the morning or at the start of evening.

They will come out into fields at any time,

to meet him, to see, just to stand back

for a moment without breathing and look.

What matters here is that he is among them,

turning, switching from foot to foot in quick

ghostly anticipation of the invisible fighters.

The men who have heard enough, and are coming.

The children are happy, are frightened, and some

are shaking through their skin in this country’s

low sinking heat. He is moving in time

to the calls of his trainer. The oldest among

the children have become brave for a while

and begin to box careless jabs into the arms

and chins of their friends. If anything is being

taught here it’s in the dance that isn’t a dance

but the true beautiful body pressed against another

in hope and precision, in a slow blue fury.

Their small feet stamping the ground, jumping,

their voices rising behind him in a prayer of dust:

Ali, Ali, Ali, Ali.

 

3.         Muhammad Ali, Sacred, 1985

 

His eyes stayed.

Still.

His legs dancing back, slipped from him

and an arm thrown, where before

you couldn’t see it, slowed into stillness.

One man learning to live inside of another.

Where nothing can be defeated.

 

4.         Muhammad Ali Underwater

 

He is standing

at the bottom of a pool

surrounded at last by rest,

by the soft moments water affords.

 

A body gathered around a body.

 

Everything barely moving–

His shorts.

The laces in his shoes.

The hairs on his arms and legs

 

quietly sway under the breaking light above.

 

Every voice

on the deck is low

and more motion than meaning.

 

He cannot really tell who

they belong to, but somewhere he knows

each of them.

 

Here

surrounded by a furious grace

that doesn’t shimmer so much as it shadows

 

he has found himself inside

the soft moment under

in a room away

from the slow world

and has begun to open his fists.

 

*

 

The unbelievable fact

that we could see

all of his left hook, his right jab

for once

ease in time from his chest and eyes,

 

push and split

water easy as skin breaking, opening

into the thing that lets it live.

 

The entire history of the dangerous shuffling of feet.

 

The fist from nowhere

made visible. In a still swiftness

 

he has turned, that smile, all fleet,

in no simple dance: a sure step,

a double stop of calm and lightning

verified in the swing.

 

His eyes wide, even now

he is looking and not looking.

 

The water somehow making room for it all.

 

*

 

Because he is underwater

 

does not mean he has let loose

some private fish. That he is

something he is not.

 

The dapple from the day

moves when he moves, as in any room

but here there is the breaking

wet weight on his back.

 

It will bead and drip. Breathless

it will fall from him in sunlight.

 

Because he is underwater.

 

Because he is underwater

does not mean he is waiting

for old swallows asleep in mud to carry him off

in spring. The only legends that can save him

are his lungs,

every bone,

movement,

his skin stretching between fingers and toes.

 

All effort becomes effortless,

almost powerless.

 

The second nature of rising.

 

He will let himself up opponentless and easy

gravity falling

back into cold light, blue, and clear blue.

 

Oxygen finding its way back into teeth.

Everything becomes clearer.

 

He will say       It couldn’t take me

it tried, but the water couldn’t

 

Take me.

 

*

 

Behind soft folds of good cotton

shadows are drying,

the inner ear is returning.

 

In broad daylight:

 

The sweetness of air. A laying on of hands.

 

Ali won’t glisten for long.

 

The water slipping onto pebbles and blue tiles

breaks

the immediate unavoidable silence

when Ali first reached for the short ladder

out of the deep end.

 

Everyone goes to him,

friends and reporters, photographers,

 

hopeful possible lovers have risen from green deck chairs

in two pieces

holding drinks, turning ice in their mouths.

It is the only possible moment.

 

Ali returned to his own familiar life.

 

Still, when his head broke the surface

didn’t it seem he was coming for us?

 

Didn’t you hope?

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