Poetry | June 01, 2003
Poor Boy's Game for Muhammad Ali
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.
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–
The laces in his shoes.
The hairs on his arms and legs
quietly sway under the breaking light above.
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.
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
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,
his skin stretching between fingers and toes.
All effort becomes effortless,
The second nature of rising.
He will let himself up opponentless and easy
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
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
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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