The Undefeated: Homage to Jersey Joe Walcott
In the painting The Undefeated by Fletcher Martin
(1948) the all but unconscious Jersey Joe Walcott
—born, Arnold Raymond Cream—flows down the chest
of the white referee like a waterfall of black water.
With his right hand raised the ref signals he’s called
the fight. With the left arm around the boxer’s waist
he attempts to hold back the flow of water
—Joe Louis, the victor “unusually”, as the notation
at the side of the painting mentions, is not depicted.
continues boxing, nevertheless, defeating
Ezzard Charles to become the oldest heavyweight
champion up till then. It is his second attempt.
He is thirty-seven. It is 1951.
In the earliest fight I can remember, I am
a child sitting at the side of my father.
I am in pajamas; my father’s in boxer shorts
and t-shirt (he is a shoemaker). It is 1952.
Rocky Marciano has just won
the heavyweight championship of the world,
defeating Jersey Joe Walcott.
I have little memory of the bout: the fanfare,
the expectation as the ringside announcer
introduces the boxers, has them shake hands,
turn to their corners as they wait for the bell…
even of Marciano—a persistent though clumsy boxer…
a slugger…but Jersey Joe Walcott, remains with me:
the great mass of the man crumbled on the canvas,
the accumulation of years of boxing weighing him down
as the force of gravity sucks him toward its infinite center.
I remember the flash of the right cross to the chin.
Boxing experts calculate it was one of the hardest punches
The rage of Florida’s summer sun at midday
fills the halls of the museum with refugees.
I stand facing the Fletcher Martin. I arrive
from a connecting room where Shiva dances
the world into destruction. He holds one arm upward,
palm turned to us—a gesture of peace: “Do not fear”
Parvati will simultaneously make new
what her consort has destroyed: out of one
is born the other: Where does one divinity end
and the other begin?
Buddha—a new acquisition from the nearly destroyed
Cambodia—sits lotus fashion, palm turned toward us.
I seem to remember an illustration
from my childhood catechism book: Christ is walking
with children. The colors are bright, children’s colours.
It is a Christ depicted for children. He holds a palm
up extended toward the child reader. A young mother
whisks her two children from the Eastern Divinity hall
into this one in which I am standing. I cannot hear
what she tells them, but the children seem to listen
…for the moment. They pass from painting to painting
Two young women, maybe on a high school assignment,
sit before an abstract…the artist, a contemporary
of Martin’s. They take notes.
One rests her head on the other’s shoulder.
The rage of the Florida sun has brought us here.
Jersey Joe, you drop out of school at fifteen
to take on the burden your father leaves
at his passing: mother, siblings—eleven:
Your father was born in St. Thomas; mother,
from, Pennsauken, New Jersey, corruption
of a Lenape word, reminder of history’s entwinement
of souls. But where does it begin?
How does it matter? Somewhere on both sides
—mother’s, father’s—treads the Middle Passage,
silent, perhaps, but there, a thread in the weave
of the soul.
Passage between all that will be—must be--
forgotten and all that must follow. Many survive.
Many do not. The sea knows their numbers.
No one else.
Auction block, fields of cane, tobacco,
scars the wads of cotton cut into the palm of the hand.
Something must be born of it all, must weave
itself into the soul’s—not the body’s—DNA:
amorphous yet hard, almost diamond-like
yet dark, a darkness that supersedes the darkness
of a ships dank hull, confines it to shadows,
transcends the odor of flesh rotting on the bone.
Not of the body but of the soul, the pull and tug
of life—wordless, passed on to the children
of the children through the darkness that lights
the eyes, a gesture of the hand.
Arnold Raymond Cream, you take the name
“Joe Walcott” to honour a former champion.
To which you add “Jersey.” Is it only
to distinguish yourself from an old idol
and the name “Jersey” is handy…your home?
Or is there more? Is it that even the Middle Passage
must have end, a place you stake out as yours
and it is much later that you become the land’s,
not by enslaving the soil but through that feeling
on a Sunday Morning, after the brawls
and ravages of a Saturday Night?
A lone tree survives at the end of a garbage
strewn street. A blanket is laid on the grass
of a minute park the chaos leaves untouched.
And what survives in the soul (molecule
or molecules added to the soul’s DNA)
of those who have made the Middle Passage
comes alive. Your eyes open to the things
of this world as if—or through—a seedling
of love, and what you love becomes a part
of your name, and you a part of a place.
Is there another way?
In that bout, in that memory of you
that never leaves me, as the memory
of my father beside me never leaves me,
Rocky Marciano may be waiting
in a neutral corner for, after all,
he was always a clean boxer. And yet
I do not see him. The mass of yourself
lies crumbled on the canvas. Will you ever
get up? How can you not?
Vincent Spina is from Brooklyn, NY. He is a retired Associate Professor of Spanish Language and South American Literature. Spina has published three books of poetry: OUTER BOROUGH: Pecan Grove Press, 2008; DIALOGUE: The Poet’s Press, 2015; THE SUMPTUOUS HILLS OF GULFPORT: Lamar University Literary Press, 2017. Recent poems have appeared In VOX POPULI, an online journal, VEXT, also online and THE BRIDGE LITERARY ARTS JOURNAL.
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