Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Poetry Month, Day 8, Elizabeth Alexander, "Narrative: Ali"

Today, for Muhammad Ali, a poem by Elizabeth Alexander. I don't actually know a great deal about Ali, but this seems like an interesting snap shot.

Narrative: Ali

Related Poem Content Details

a poem in twelve rounds

My head so big 
they had to pry 
me out. I’m sorry 
Bird (is what I call 
my mother). Cassius 
Marcellus Clay, 
Muhammad Ali; 
you can say 
my name in any 
language, any 
continent: Ali. 


Two photographs 
of Emmett Till, 
born my year, 
on my birthday. 
One, he’s smiling, 
happy, and the other one 
is after. His mother 
did the bold thing, 
kept the casket open, 
made the thousands look upon 
his bulging eyes, 
his twisted neck, 
her lynched black boy. 
I couldn’t sleep 
for thinking, 
Emmett Till. 

One day I went 
Down to the train tracks, 
found some iron 
shoe-shine rests 
and planted them 
between the ties 
and waited 
for a train to come, 
and watched the train 
derail, and ran, 
and after that 
I slept at night. 


I need to train 
around people, 
hear them talk, 
talk back. I need 
to hear the traffic, 
see people in 
the barbershop, 
people getting 
shoe shines, talking, 
hear them talk, 
talk back. 


Bottom line: Olympic gold 
can’t buy a black man 
a Louisville hamburger 
in nineteen-sixty. 

Wasn’t even real gold. 
I watched the river 
drag the ribbon down, 
red, white, and blue.    


Laying on the bed, 
praying for a wife, 
in walk Sonji Roi. 

Pretty little shape. 
Do you like 
chop suey? 

Can I wash your hair 
that wig? 

Lay on the bed, 
Girl. Lie 
with me. 

Shake to the east, 
to the north, 
south, west— 

but remember, 
remember, I need 
a Muslim wife. So 

Quit using lipstick. 
Quit your boogaloo. 
Cover up your knees 

like a Muslim 
wife, religion, 
religion, a Muslim 

wife. Eleven 
months with Sonji, 
first woman I loved. 


There’s not 
too many days 
that pass that I 
don’t think 
of how it started, 
but I know 
no Great White Hope 
can beat 
a true black champ. 
Jerry Quarry 
could have been 
a movie star, 
a millionaire, 
a senator, 
a president— 
he only had 
to do one thing, 
is whip me, 
but he can’t. 

7. Dressing-Room Visitor

He opened 
up his shirt: 
“KKK” cut 
in his chest. 
He dropped 
his trousers: 
latticed scars 
where testicles 
should be, His face 
bewildered, frozen 
in the Alabama woods 
that night in 1966 
when they left him 
for dead, his testicles 
in a Dixie cup. 
You a warning, 
they told him, 
to smart-mouth, 
sassy-acting niggers, 
meaning niggers 
still alive, 
meaning any nigger, 
meaning niggers 
like me. 

8. Training

Unsweetened grapefruit juice 
will melt my stomach down. 
Don’t drive if you can walk, 
don’t walk if you can run. 
I add a mile each day 
and run in eight-pound boots. 

My knuckles sometimes burst 
the glove. I let dead skin 
build up, and then I peel it, 
let it scar, so I don’t bleed 
as much. My bones 
absorb the shock. 

I train in three-minute 
spurts, like rounds: three 
rounds big bag, three speed 
bag, three jump rope, one- 
minute breaks, 
no more, no less. 

Am I too old? Eat only 
kosher meat. Eat cabbage, 
carrots, beets, and watch 
the weight come down: 
two-thirty, two-twenty, 
two-ten, two-oh-nine. 


Will I go 
like Kid Paret, 
a fractured 
skull, a ten-day 
sleep, dreaming 
alligators, pork 
chops, saxophones, 
slow grinds, funk, 
fishbowls, lightbulbs, 
bats, typewriters, 
tuning forks, funk 
clocks, red rubber 
ball, what you see 
in that lifetime 
knockout minute 
on the cusp? 
You could be 
let go, 
you could be 
snatched back. 

10. Rumble in the Jungle

Ali boma ye, 
Ali boma ye,
means kill him, Ali, 
which is different 
from a whupping 
which is what I give, 
but I lead them chanting 
anyway, Ali 
boma ye, because 
here in Africa 
black people fly 
planes and run countries. 

I’m still making up 
for the foolishness 
I said when I was 
Clay from Louisville, 
where I learned Africans 
live naked in straw 
huts eating tiger meat, 
grunting and grinning, 
swinging from vines, 
pounding their chests— 

I pound my chest but of my own accord. 


I said to Joe Frazier, 
first thing, get a good house 
in case you get crippled 
so you and your family 
can sleep somewhere. Always 
keep one good Cadillac. 
And watch how you dress 
with that cowboy hat, 
pink suits, white shoes— 
that’s how pimps dress, 
or kids, and you a champ, 
or wish you were, ‘cause 
I can whip you in the ring 
or whip you in the street. 
Now back to clothes, 
wear dark clothes, suits, 
black suits, like you the best 
at what you do, like you 
President of the World. 
Dress like that. 
Put them yellow pants away. 
We dinosaurs gotta 
look good, gotta sound 
good, gotta be good, 
the greatest, that’s what 
I told Joe Frazier, 
and he said to me, 
we both bad niggers. 
We don’t do no crawlin’. 


They called me “the fistic pariah.” 

They said I didn’t love my country, 
called me a race-hater, called me out 
of my name, waited for me 
to come out on a stretcher, shot at me, 
hexed me, cursed me, wished me 
all manner of ill will, 
told me I was finished. 

Here I am,
like the song says, 
come and take me,

“The People’s Champ,” 


Ali, of course, was also a poet himself:

Ding! Ali comes out to meet Frazier
But Frazier starts to retreat
If Frazier goes back any further
He'll wind up in a ringside seat 
Ali swings to the left
Ali swings to the right
Look at the kid
Carry the fight 
Frazier keeps backing
But there's not enough room
It's a matter of time
Then Ali lowers the boom 
Now Ali lands to the right
What a beautiful swing!
And deposits Frazier
Clean out of the ring 
Frazier's still rising
But the referee wears a frown
For he can't start counting
Till Frazier comes down 
Now Frazier disappears from view
The crowd is getting frantic
But our radar stations have picked him up
He's somewhere over the Atlantic 
Who would have thought that
When they came to the fight
That they would have witnessed
The launching of a coloured satellite! 

His poetry tended to be full of bragadaccio, a dressed up trash-talk; the dozens, but with class and verve. Maybe next month I'll take a look at an Ali biography for one of my books.