I’m standing in line. Boxing’s ringmaster
is about to autograph copies of
his book. In his prime, no one was faster
with either dancing feet or jabbing glove
than this gentle man who now emerges,
tied to apron strings of celebrity.
Drones of “oohs” and “aahs,“ as the crowd surges.
Invocations begin: “Ali! Ali!”
as if to exorcise demonic time
and resurrect together with the chant,
the lightning fists and tantalizing rhyme.
They chuckle at his jibes like sycophants
at the court of a king. “You blocks! You stones!
You worse than senseless things,” a cashier groans,
echoing Shakespeare. And I start to think.
Isn’t this the Caesar of the 60’s
Olympics? The Pax Romana who’d link
legions of imperial victories
to the farthest reaches of the world, while
civilizing the pugilistic mind
with grace and humor? He coaxes a smile
from a black woman who’s standing behind
a row of books. She exults: “You’re the champ,
Ali! You’re the champ!” Ali sets the bait.
“I’m a tramp?” he mugs. “You called me a tramp!”
“No, I didn’t!” she cries, less to placate
his mimic rage, than to admonish him,
who served the disenfranchised from a gym,
like some pastoral priest ministering
to his congregation. But Ali was
no paschal lamb sacrificed to the ring.
His two-handed offering gloved the cause
of underdogs. Knightly deeds looked easy.
Twin-fisted monsters dispatched with aplomb
made guardians of the grail feel queasy.
Their forked dragon was just another bum
who preyed on fear left over from youthful
nightmares. With gaping mouth and mocking frown,
he’d comb its lair with regulation tooth
and nail, then cut the puffed-up monster down.
In storybook style, he battled and won;
forging greatness in a spirit of fun.
Frank De Canio was born in New Jersey and works in New York. He loves music of all kinds, from Bach to Dory Previn, from Amy Beach to Amy Winehouse, and the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He also attends a Café Philo in New York City.