Poem of the Week | June 04, 2018
John Warner Smith: “The Torch”
This week, we are proud to present a new poem by John Warner Smith. Smith has published three collections of poetry: Spirits of the Gods (UL Press, 2017), Soul Be A Witness (MadHat Press, 2016), and A Mandala of Hands (Aldrich Press, 2015). His fourth collection, Muhammad’s Mountain, will be published in 2018 by Lavender Ink. Smith’s poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Callaloo, Antioch Review, North American Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Transition, Kestrel, Quiddity, and numerous other literary journals. His poetry has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and for the Sundress Best of the Net Anthology. A Cave Canem Fellow, Smith earned his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. His poetry can be found at www.johnwarnersmith.com.
Muhammad, twenty years before you left us,
we saw you appear out of pitch-black darkness
on a mountainside and watched you step
slowly toward a blooming bush. Your hands,
trembling like a man twice your age, held
a lit torch and raised it high above your head,
as if you were saluting your maker, the first
and only lasting spirit of humankind.
You reached down and touched the bush
with your torch until an all-consuming fire
lit the midnight sky. Through tears, joy,
and adulation, through history and your life
flashing before us, we watched you stand
straight and strong until you became
our lives, our torch, our flaming, blooming
cauldron for dark, unsettling days.
This poem, which appears in my latest collection of poems that pay homage to the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali, was one of the first poems of the manuscript, and the poem that gave birth to the title, Muhammad’s Mountain. The poem was written one Sunday morning as I sat in church. While driving to the 8:00 a.m. service, I became fixed on the iconic image of Ali emerging out of darkness to light the cauldron for the 1996 Olympics. Suddenly, a mountain and a burning bush came to mind as metaphors.
When the church service started and the pastor said, “Turn your Bibles to Psalm 27,” I went to Exodus, Chapter 3. My body was in church but my mind and heart were with Ali standing on a mountain. Until then, I had completely overlooked the third figure in that biblical passage: the Angel who stood inside the fiery bush as if he were the fire itself. As the last bearer of the torch, Ali personifies that figure, the Angel of fire who doesn’t speak but calls attention to the imminent presence and voice of God.
The poem is written in eight couplets, the first four of which paint the image of Ali stepping slowly out of darkness with the lit torch in his trembling hand, then raising the torch high above his head as if he is saluting God. The fifth couplet shows Ali the Angel inside the bush, reaching into the fire to ignite a cauldron that lights up the sky.
The last three couplets shift the focus to us, the world, and our collective affirmation of how profoundly the span of Ali’s singular life touched, illuminated, and inspired our own lives. The poem speaks of that moment in time when Ali, the boxer, became a modern, archetypal symbol of peace and hope for our “dark, unsettling days.”
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