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Derrick Harriell’s ROPES: Poems on Boxing, America, and Us

Derrick Harriell’s new poetry collection ROPES, from Willow Books, effortlessly carries many themes, just as its title does. ROPES can hang us, save us, bind us. Sometimes in our lives we’re “on the ropes.” These poems are as rich and layered as the collection’s title.  This collection is historical poetry, sports poetry, boxing poetry and beautiful poetry. We see America’s love of boxing and its racial sins side by side. ROPES takes you back to boxing champions Jack Johnson and Rocky Marciano and then carries you to the remarkable Ali vs Frazier fights. You get some Mike Tyson, Buster Douglas, and Sugar Ray Robinson for good measure. You hear these boxers speak in a deeply human voice. This is one of the collection’s strengths– the humanity it reveals in these rough characters. We hear in their voices, the voices of those they loved, some they hated, even some they feared.

ROPES’ greatest strength comes later in the book– at least it did for me– when I realized the human voices of these boxers is also my voice.

One of the earlier sets that moved me is “Letters to Joe Frazier from Mike Tyson.” Imagine traveling inside a young Mike Tyson’s thoughts as the poem does:

Joe,
I returned from the hospital,
and sat in the front row
as daddy spun mama
about the house
till she became a broken ballerina
in a blood-smeared tutu.

If my fists were bigger
than golf balls
I would’ve driven them
through his head
with an assassin’s
intent, believing one bullet
could change the world.

In a later poem, “Letters on Love: Tyson Writes Muhammad Ali,” the poem concludes with a gorgeous stanza:

Allah found me in a prison cell,
wiped me clean.

Now I know how it feels to willingly hit
your knees, open your hands,
let something in.

One of my favorites is “Tupac Shakur Reads Letter from Mike Tyson.” The epigraph indicates “Clinton Correctional Facility, New York, 1995” Stanza two reads:

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.

Some of my favorites, in this book of many favorites, are the poems about the epic fights between Ali and Joe Frazier. I remember these from grade school and middle school. I remember too my dad introducing me to boxing through these fights– a few of which we watched together. I especially love “Recapping Ali vs Frazier I: As Told by Ringside Journalist”

Ladies and gentlemen,
it was billed as “The Fight”
in the holy war, Allah versus Christ,
butterfly dips colliding with fists.
It didn’t disappoint.
As Hollywood selected sides,
Ali turned the ring ice,
orbiting Frazier like an angry satellite,
crimson fists fast
like meteorites.

Joe battled. 
A determined lumberjack
stalking a tree,
a pissed off bull seeing blood,
a big bad wolf blowing feverishly.
Ali’s kidney’s 
asked to see an imam
in round fifteen, drank coffee 
with Frazier’s broken jaw
in a hospital cafeteria
the following morning.

These are rich descriptions with discipline. Harriell’s lines and insights are accessible and surprising at the same time. With a sweaty sheen of beauty glazing lots of these poems.

Some of the most tender poems– and there are tender poems here– are the ones that reach back in time. In “Letters to Jack Johnson from Joe Louis, Rural Alabama, 1925” we get beautiful lines like these:

Jack, 
They say my father a mad man, crazy person
makes love to the walls of some asylum,
I don’t know him.

Among the saddest poems here is “Found–Jack Johnson Goes to Jail” Court Refuses Cash Bail and He Cannot Find Bondsmen.” New York Times, November 9, 1912:

Jack Johnson
champion heavyweight pugilist of the world,
tonight occupied a cell
in the County Jail
due to his failure to furnish
a $30,000 bond for his release
on the beastly charge of sleeping
with a white woman.

As he left the Federal Building,
handcuffed to Deputy Marshall Ed,
after a futile plea
not to have his writes manacled,
Johnson seemed greatly dejected.
And in his extended fight
to reduce years,
he shed tears.

The most beautiful lines, to my mind, come in a short poem near ROPES’ end. Here is the first stanza from “There Are Ghosts inside Here: Jack Johnson Writes Joe Louis” The epigraph reads: United States Penitentiary, Leavenworth, August 1920:

Joe, 
There are ghosts inside here,
floating men abandon their youth each hour.
Youngblood called me black Moses
before hanging himself with a rusted dream.
We take turns dying.

This is the poem where we see the fights, the prisons, the loves, the fears of these men really belong to us all. These men have names we all know. But they have souls we know too– because Derrick Harriell shows us how similar we all are. I’ve never even put on a pair of boxing gloves. But I know “We take turns dying.”

These poems will last because, in the end, they are not only about some of the great legends of boxing. They are about us all.

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