Ali! Ali!

- 1964-

It’s late and your heart skips watching
that young man fight. The Garden, the left
jab lashes like a frog’s tongue catching
a fly. There you go again with an undeft

image to his arthropod conceit. You know he’ll win,
an old victory. They hate him there, sore
that he joined your faith, a strapping boy, skin
hairless almost feminine. He’d kept you up before,

your father waking you at dawn to watch the thrilla,
the rumble, even the shamble in Nagasaki
fighting a wrestler, a prone Japanese guerrilla,
bruising the elegant legs. What was he

telling you then in that unplanned night shift?
That there’s honor in defeat, that you’d get your chance?
The referee says, “Alright boys,” and you drift
to Ralph Allison’s blind nightmarish dance.

The doctor checks Jones’s right eye, but the crowd
boos him. There’d been a scandal in slow mo.
No one wants a dead man shouting aloud
maricon! At the end of round five, he’s slow

and you want to lead him back to his corner
though you know he’ll win, a knockout,
probably, but he wastes two rounds looking for
a strong straight right as Banks flouts

a second wind. Then in a flash—you’re about
to adjust the volume or put a dish away—
Cooper is a cyclops, blood oozing out
of his one open eye, swinging wildly

like a wounded spider. Lyle’s coach protests.
Years later he’ll do the rope-a-dope to declaim
on purgatory. And later yet, in an airport
he writes a dedication to you, signs his name,

on a leaflet, “Life After Death.” Tonight again
your beloved brother squeaks by, a TKO.
His victory’s slower, but that’s where he’ll remain,
a light in your heart that never ceased to glow.

More by Khaled Mattawa

Ecclesiastes

The trick is that you're willing to help them.
The rule is to sound like you're doing them a favor.

The rule is to create a commission system.
The trick is to get their number.

The trick is to make it personal:
No one in the world suffers like you.

The trick is that you're providing a service.
The rule is to keep the conversation going.

The rule is their parents were foolish,
their children are greedy or insane.

The rule is to make them feel they've come too late.
The trick is that you're willing to make exceptions.

The rule is to assume their parents abused them.
The trick is to sound like the one teacher they loved.

And when they say "too much,"
give them a plan.

And when they say "anger" or "rage" or "love,"
say "give me an example."

The rule is everyone is a gypsy now.
Everyone is searching for his tribe.

The rule is you don't care if they ever find it.
The trick is that they feel they can.

Lyric

Will answers be found
like seeds
planted among rows of song?

Will mouths recognize
the hunger
in their voices, all mouths in unison,

the ah in harmony, the way words
of hope are more
than truth when whispered?

Will we turn to each other and ask,
how long
has it been...how long since?

A world now, a world then
and each
is seeking a foothold, trying

to remember when we looked
at one another
and found—A world again—Surely

what we long for is at the wheel 
contending.

Surely, we'll soon hear 
its unearthly groan.

Airporter

Yardley, Pennsylvania, an expensive dump
and the van seats shake their broken bones.

Duty-free liquor and cigarettes,
the refineries and the harbor's cranes.

The moon digs its way out of the dirt.
The branches of an evergreen sway.

She's nice
the woman you don't love.

She kisses you hard and often
holding your face in her big hands.

Related Poems

Perfect Form

North Charleston, South Carolina, April 4, 2015

Walter Scott must have been a track athlete
before serving his country, having children:

his knees were high, elbows bent
at 90 degrees as his arms pumped
close to his sides, back straight and head up
as each foot landed in front of the other.
Too much majesty in his last strides.

So much depends on instinct, ingrained
legacies and American pastimes.
Relays where everyone on the team wins
remain a dream. Olympic arrogance,
black men chased for sport—
heat after heat
of longstanding, savage races
that always finish the same way.

My guess is Walter Scott ran distances
and sprinted, whatever his life events
required. Years of training and technique
are not forgotten, even at 50. Even after being
tased out of his right mind. Even in peril
the body remembers what it has been
taught, keeping perfect form
during his final dash.