Swing Low and see Liston there, the final bout
at death, a knockout. His arms out and still
across the bed in glory. Under the neon desert,
the names followed him, windblown. Each one he carries
like a burden and a brother into his fist. Big Bear, Sonny
Boy, Thief of St. Louis. The Bad Man of the Ring.
They are his children, they are his legend. No belt here,
or trace of a needle breaking skin. The report will say
probable heart failure. What the cops will find: papers
stacked outside the front door for days, a balloon full of smack
on the counter and the reefer in his slacks. Who knows
what figures passed in shadow through the threshold
while sweet Geraldine was gone? From the dust the champ
came, to there he returns. A single stone over the grave.
He will be given more than a name, the title, A Man.
A man is all it takes
to get behind a mule
and plow up a field
until dark. It takes less
of a man to use the whip
on his son, a crop of copper
scars that sting eternal
in the heat. He will not learn
to read, this boy, who will drag
a sack of cotton home, pass
the shack they call School.
The welts of time will stay
with him, even as he slips
away from farm to city.
He will trace them all
like Braille across his back
with a lover’s hand or lying
down liquor full, to sleep.
His hand will find its glove,
a body that longs to dream.
Dream long in the evening’s belly
The cold rain falls from the pines,
drips across my forehead
A whisper says, Sonny,
Sonny boy, hang up your gloves.
The mule brays with a broken leg,
gaunt from years at the plow
He is not mine to tame, but to heal
I bring my knife from its sheath,
Spilling the moon in my black hands
this cup I could never drink from, offered
Virgins shrouded with white
descend from the hills, they seize the blade
Before I cut the mule’s throat
they lay their hands across his hide
His eyes shut and he stops
the wretched song he knows, they stick
Branches over the body
and wash their hands clean in the river
The earth will glean the bones
he will be changed, of the dirt, the clay
Clay comes out to meet Liston and Liston starts to retreat,
he won’t show his fear to the aged champion the first round
if Liston goes back an inch farther he’ll end up in a ringside seat.
but dances light on his toes like a gazelle, Allah’s chosen child
Clay swings with his left, Clay swings with his right,
unlike Liston, who swings with his bear paws, tired—
Look at young Cassius carry the fight
though he takes the second round from the boy
Liston keeps backing, but there’s not enough room,
in the corner, Liston feels the axe handle strike
It’s a matter of time till Clay lowers the boom.
and opens Liston’s eyes, a bruise on his right, a cut on the left
Now Clay lands with a right,
the corner-men dab Monsel’s under the circles
What a beautiful swing, and the punch raises the Bear clean out of the ring.
it will touch his gloves and then he hits Clay’s eyes, the burn
Liston is still rising and the ref wears a frown,
of almost losing, Clay wants his gloves cut off
For he can’t start counting till Sonny goes down.
and runs into the ring to take the sixth, running
Now Liston is disappearing from view,
it is not to say that Liston quit on the seventh
The crowd is going frantic,
round, maybe his shoulder snapped
But radar stations have picked him up,
and he slipped away for a moment, out
Somewhere over the Atlantic.
of his mind, he saw his robe in the corner—
Who would have thought when they came to the fight?
the image of a setting sun stitched under his name, LISTON
That they’d witness the launching of a human satellite.
watching the boy soldier with God in his fist, dance
Yes the crowd did not dream, when they put up the money,
around the champ, who laid down his sword, they knew
That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.
only Liston on his stool, refusing the fight
*The italicized portion is a poem composed by Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali)
in 1963 before his first match against Liston. Clay won after Liston refused
to reenter the ring, citing a dislocated shoulder.
P.S. Dean is a first year MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Mississippi and has studied at the Kenyon Review Writers Conference and the Squaw Valley Writers Conference.