This book is for those who communicate thunder, rain, sunlight, hope, and pain with their hands.
When I was a baby my Dad used to help make ends meet by bare knuckle fighting at horse fairs. He would travel with local gypsies to fairs like Appleby and fight for them against other travellers. Then he would bring home wads of cash and the odd cut to his lip or round his eyes. Before I was born Dad was in the army and they saw the potential to train him as a boxer. He was the ABA champion at his weight and would have gone to the 1968 Olympics, except for a terrible incident where other soldiers attacked him in the night and threw him from a first floor window onto concrete. He suffered a head and neck injury, and never boxed again. I’m not sure I could ever have watched him box. To me, my Dad is my big cuddly and protective bear of a man. I couldn’t imagine him being aggressive or ruthless, even though he always tells me it’s a controlled aggression. This book of poetry lets us inside the mind of a boxer before and during a match.
Each short stanza cleverly gives the sense that the poem is split into rounds and there is sometimes even a bell punctuating the last line. These are short lines, and short punchy words suggesting the rhythm of a fight – dancing feet, short sharp jabs and staccato movement. This is a debut fight, so there’s no experience for him to fall back on. He’s never felt the bright lights of a proper ring with an audience. We hear his self talk: the talking up of the ‘golden road paved to a win’ but underneath there’s doubt and fear. Then he pulls it back and sounds like his own coach – this isn’t how I do things, I trained, I know what I’m doing, I didn’t come here to lose.
There are beautiful little insights into how it feels physically to take take a punch. I loved the image of the boxer back in his corner, the yelling of the coach and how the ‘water feels like gold, red bee stings.’ I also like his description of taking blows to the head, and the ringing in his ears. He needs the corner again and shake them off, reassess his game plan. He talks himself up, he can beat him because the opponent ‘wants’ to fall. He’s wobbly. It won’t take much. He needs to ‘try to turn his face to a puddle on the canvas’. It’s as much a mental battle as a physical one as the boxer reminds himself that he has a game plan, he just needs to follow it. His opponent is undisciplined: ‘Comes out with loose cannons on fire / Swiping air, wild with no game plan.’ Winning is about being sure of your own game and preparation, but finding chinks of weakness to exploit.
This was an interesting poem, full of insight into how a sportsman thinks and formulates a game plan. The rollercoaster of emotion from self-doubt to almost reckless confidence was fascinating. I could imagine my Dad when he started at 16, trying to keep his fear in check and follow his training. One line that resonated with me more than any of the others when I think of my Dad.
‘The bulbs from bright lights smack me/ as sweat shines like brand new money.’
He once told me that he was fighting in a club, the ring surrounded by tables where men and women in evening dress were shouting and almost baying for blood. It made him uncomfortable that his sweat and brute force were a currency, no more than a paid entertainment to them. That they might bet more than he was being paid to feel sick, to feel pain, to shed blood. This boxer’s thought that his sweat is money reminded me of that story and made me think this is a thought common to many fighters. I was amazed that in this relatively short poem, I could find so many connections between this young fighter and my father.
The Kwansaba is a genuinely African-American poetry form. Created during the peak of the Black Arts Movement, in coordination with the creation of Kwanzaa itself, a kwansaba is praise poem that is seven lines long with seven words in each line with no word longer than seven letters. Given the significance of the number seven to Kwanzaa, the celebration’s meaning is literally built into the poem.