'Ropes,' by Derrick Harriell
Reviewed by Malik Abduh
The night of the Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas fight I took the F train from Brooklyn to my cousin’s house in Jamaica, Queens. We sat in the living room, the old heads with Guinness Stouts, us with our wings from the Chinese joint. The lead-up segment showed Tyson spending time with Sumo wrestlers; Douglas mourning the recent loss of his mother. I thought, Damn shame he went all the way to Japan to get rocked, and right after his mother died. We joked that Buster, a 42-1 underdog, would probably make out better if he climbed in the ring with one of them Sumo wrestlers.
Tyson walked out, all black everything, no robe, no socks, but I noticed something almost from the opening bell: Buster was not shook. He was peppering Tyson with jabs and straight rights, even wobbled him in the fourth; and by the middle rounds, Tyson had a mouse over his eye.
Then in the last 10 seconds of the eighth round, Tyson brought an uppercut from deep inside an iron mine, and put Douglas on the canvas looking up at the lights. Tyson did what he had done in thirty-three of his previous thirty-seven contests; added a slow motion fall to the highlight reel. Douglas, however, made it to his feet, still hurt, at the nine count just beating the bell.
In the tenth, Douglas hit Tyson with a combination that put him on his back. We sat stunned as Tyson fumbled around the canvas trying to pick up his mouth piece. The ref waved his hands. Iron Mike Tyson, from Brownsville — never ran, never will — had been knocked out.
My family’s house was as silent as the fans in the Tokyo Dome had been the whole fight. I can only recall my cousin’s post-fight report: “Bullshit! Don King and them fixed that. You see Tyson crawling around the ring? That was fixed!” Later, King would contest the referee’s eighth round count. But ultimately, he would concede to the fact that Buster Douglas was the new undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. The words sounded like blasphemy. When I left my cousin’s that night and headed back to Brooklyn, disbelief had a double meaning for me.
Derrick Harriell’s volume Ropes is a fluid, effortless movement between the brutal and the ironic; between love, anger and frustration; race, sex and oppression. Poems to and about our greatest fighters, written in four sections — or rounds. This volume reads like a tale of the tape, inside and outside of the ring, where they face their toughest opponents: lovers, Jim Crow and personal demons.
One of the first voices we hear is of Tyson’s trainer, capturing the remarkable vulnerability of one of boxing’s most feared fighters on his stool:
He tells me he’s afraid.
I tell him of the hero
how both feel the same,
how fear’s a fire and friend.
Here, the legendary trainer Cus D’Amato speaks, a man Tyson would later say frightened him more than any opponent he faced in the ring (I’ve met God./He’s old and weak/white and bald./We call him Cus). These are not gods in this volume. They are men, whose flesh is oft times weak. To capture these emotions, the poet must craft voice, and this, without question, is the strength of Ropes.
In an epistolary poem entitled “Not Joe Frazier: Tyson Writes Apology Letter,” the speaker combines reverence and disregard:
Tomorrow I’ll beat your boy like he stole
My favorite bird, like he robbed
Cus of air, like his last name
not Frazier. I respectively intend to crush
his ribs and will in one blow, smack
that kid round the ring, remind him
his name not Joe.
Here, Tyson harnesses the fear and anger of his childhood and turns it into fury, the fury that finished Marvis Frazier, Joe’s boy, in thirty seconds. “His name not Joe,” as the speaker asserts, but it is clear that even if he had been, he would have fared no better.
Harriell is also able to capture the fighter’s vulnerabilities in another epistolary poem, “Tupac Shakur Reads Letter from Mike Tyson”:
Prison is no place for gods,
it’ll yank stars out you, and once
they’ve taken your stars
they’ll come for your moons.
The world watched Mike Tyson prowl the ring, in awe of the gold-toothed snarls, the rage, the charge (even the rape charge), but felt safe in the fact that the frenzy would one day be locked away somewhere in Indiana. Men like this, of course, are adored in the ring, but marked for the cell, where there are no moons, no stars, no pigeon coops.
We are privy to private speech, words we will not hear in a post-fight interview. Harriell strips away the bogeyman’s costume and leaves him bare on the cold, gray cement at the foot of his bunk. In the end, “all the players were so afraid/of Tyson playing Tyson.” and hearing these words makes him all the more frightening.
The fighter’s “ring of romance” is one of the central pillars of Ropes. “What’s the worth of waist/belts without women to decorate them?” we’re asked. In a book that portrays and interrogates black masculinity, Harriell raises the question of the glory in the title belt; the arms outstretched as the fighter’s second fastens the buckle around his waist, champion of the world—at least some part of it. We are given a long look at their lives outside of the arena, and how these champions faced deeply troubling challenges:
Robin stood taller than Mitch Blood Green,
her hot barrage of heavy blows
enough to melt iron.
I remember how Mike Tyson was able to dominate the Mitch Green fight with left hooks to the body and head, one launching Green’s mouthpiece out of the ring. Tyson eventually won the twelve-round contest with judges giving him the unanimous decision. But I also remember Tyson and Robin Givens’ interview on Barbara Walters. How that night, Mike had no answers as he might for an opponent; instead, he sat there in a daze and absorbed the barrage:
Barbara Walters refereed the ambush,
her little pointy nose a sword in my back.
She never sent us to neutral corners,
never gave a standing eight count
or asked if I could continue.
We are placed in the champ’s head; witness to all his frustration, anger, love and loss. This use of shifting POV continues throughout the volume, from character to character. The echoes are powerful. While Tyson, in 1992, faced “Landmines in stilettoes,” Jack Johnson, around 1912, squared off, bare-knuckled, against “the beastly charge of sleeping/with a white woman.” Johnson was convicted on the Mann Act, or, as it was also known, the White Slave Traffic Act, a law which made it illegal to transport a woman over state lines for immoral purposes, and what could have been more immoral than the “Big (Black) Smoke” traveling through Texas with white women?
Johnson seemed greatly dejected.
And in his extended fight
to reduce his years,
he shed tears.
This is poetry as imagined history, and at no point in Ropes does Harriell shy away from presenting the very complicated and, often, tragic legacy of sex, race and violence in the biographies of these champions; a legacy that at times marred their careers, at times sent them to prison; but is always related in rhythmic language, rich in imagery: “Diablo wears lipstick, pumps/six-inch pitchfork tips.” And while the ring myth persists that women weaken legs, in this book women appear as a complex erotic muse — a convergence, like boxing itself, of tenderness and violence:
My old lady flashed a bosom at the final bell
whispered sugar in my ear,
told me I could stop a train.
Joe Frazier lived his last days inside his old gym; what he described as his “dungeon”; the landmark that is now a used furniture store. His final chapter, almost cliché: the fighter who after decades in boxing, traveling from Madison Square to Manila, brawling for some of the largest purses to that point, ends up in financial straits, and then, all but forgotten in life, and then, affectionately — if hypocritically — celebrated in death.
It is interesting that writers and sportscasters have focused on the fact that Joe’s biography mirrors the plight of the black masses of the cotton fields more than Ali’s, but have failed to discuss how Frazier’s biography is also the plight of the “blue collar Philadelphian” of the meat packing plants (where Frazier actually worked) — even more than it is the fictional Rocky’s. Ropes addresses this beautifully:
Nothing a little make believe can’t knock out,
southpaw Fairy Dust mixed with
left hook bullshit. Peter
pan the camera round me
as I circle raw meat
that don’t swing back
just like Joe said he did.
This stanza is from the poem “Shot for Joe: One Part Marciano/Two Parts Frazier.” The use of hard enjambment in the line breaks makes the poem swing and feint: “Peter/pan the camera round me.” The speaker here realizes that he (and the Hollywood lens) has stolen Joe’s story, but needs Peter Pan fairy dust to replace Joe’s soul. This is further captured in a poem entitled “Letters to Joe Louis from Joe Frazier:
Been boxing too,
Philly fools got two left feet,
Wonder how I hit hard with no practice,
I tells them luck, but truth is
when the slaughterhouse turn quiet and manager gone,
I’m surrounded by armies of departed livestock.
I introduce my fists to hanging ribs
and feel spirits moving bout me,
dance like it’s midnight,
swing hard when blood reach my eye.
This is the voice of a man who fights with blood in his eye, visited by spirits in the midnight hour to inspire him, yet in no way like his story inspired Rocky.
Frazier’s greatest foil Muhammad Ali is the greatest boxer to ever climb between the ropes, my childhood hero. Yet, Ali’s public taunts of Joe Frazier troubled me — still do. Hero or not, I could never justify Ali calling Frazier a gorilla (even if it rhymed perfectly with Manila), fight promotion included. One of the reasons Ali was (and remains) my hero is that he took up the banner of defending his race, the struggle to rebuild the esteem and sense of worth that had been demolished by centuries of stereotypes and white supremacist ideals of beauty. To be black, to be African, was to be ugly, less evolved and closer to primitive man, apes and monkeys. Labeling Frazier a gorilla was inexcusable.
In a poem entitled “Ali vs. Frazier II: Ali’s Gloves Deliver Punch Line,” the poet’s use of irony to frame this bitter rivalry and history in the form of a “two ___’s walk into a ____” joke is one of the most effective devices in the entire volume:
Two boxers walk into a ring.
But Joe forgot the one about the angry nigger
with the flat nose, the one that takes twelve rounds
and a lot of blood to hash out.
There was nothing funny at all about this “joke,” the bitter rivalry and taunts, and this is what makes the use of verbal irony here such a powerful tool. The next poem in the volume, “Mistress in Manila: Veronica Porche Testifies”, continues to frame this rivalry in joke form, though perhaps not as successfully as the previous poem:
He never believed Frazier was a gorilla
nor was the Uncle Tom remark
It was all a speed bag for a lethargic marriage.
A knock knock crack
with a straight right punch line.
The strength of this stanza, rather, the entire poem, is the metaphor: the speed bag’s rapid fire, the drumroll of the gym. And although this metaphor is certainly interesting, it is not nearly as penetrating as the irony of previous piece.
In “Constructing The New Negro,” Harriell opens the poem with an epigraph from Maya Angelou: “If Joe lost we were back in slavery and beyond help…” This of course alludes to the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938, a contest not just between two fighters, but two nations: The United States and Nazi Germany:
Word in the Bronx is blood
will parachute through Yankee Stadium
like a Babe Ruth fireball
or a holy oil through a congregation.
But shortly after the bell
it becomes the white towel
next to the wailing German
that removes a tension in the breeze,
a grin from a Nazi face.
Imagery and sensory details are what carry these lines: the visuals of the (red) blood and white towel; the sound of the bell and the wailing German; the feeling of tension in the audience, the breeze. So while the similes of the fireballs and holy oil may not work on the same level, the sensory details place the reader in the spectator’s seat. And while the grin may be removed from a Nazi face, the volume never allows us to forget that these fighters had little to smile about here at home. Perhaps no poem in Ropes better demonstrates this than “Jack Johnson Writes Robert Delaney”:
Bust up Burns in fourteen rounds.
I’ve never seen no Negro lynched
but understand the mercy
their eyes beg for.
that mob in Springfield
hung that barber
showed no pity, paraded
his charred body for blocks,
wanted to show
they not fooling around.
This volume reminds me what once made me a believer, that boxing is as much poetry and mythology as it is blood sport, and that its greatest champions have always been the warrior-poets of the people.
This morning Mamma told of a Negro
arms iron cannonballs,
hammer heads for hands.
Said an honest man
would always best machines
and being strong
than tricking folks.
But I’m a strong and honest
trickster, like Henry
whose bout ended
with that hammer
I found Ropes a remarkable work; its synthesis of folklore, history and biography, told in language that is at times lofty, at times colloquial, but always lyrical. It lays bare the heart and soul of the men who drove glove to glory and whose bouts ended, almost always, with that glove in tears.
By derrick Harriell
Aquarius Press (October 7, 2013)
MALIK ABDUH received his MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Camden in 2011. He was the recipient of the 2008 Rutgers University Alumni Association award for Creative Writing. His work has appeared in Four Way Review, Southern Indiana Review and other journals.