On January 20, 1967, with an overcast sky above and freshly fallen snow underfoot, over 400 curious, but respectful, mourners milled around a freshly dug grave and watched as Father Frederick Gehring, a Catholic priest, along with a U.S. Marine Honor Guard, helped officiate at the funeral for one of their fellow comrades from the Battle for Guadalcanal. Everyday duties for a Catholic priest? Not really, for the cemetery was Chicago's Jewish Rosemont Park and Father Gehring was repaying a favor left over from Guadalcanal, some 25 years earlier - Christmas Eve, 1942, to be exact - and owed to the deceased, Barney Ross, "who surely could not have just happened to be Jewish."
And it is surely not a coincidence that Al should have sent this paragraph about Barney Ross, the light- and middleweight boxing champion of the world in the late 1930s, who happens to have been a distant cousin of mine, to my poetry-oriented website, because back in my MFA days I was writing a sonnet sequence about him. It was odd to be reminded of Barney Ross at this juncture, because thinking of him in a poetic framework takes me back to a time when I was a burgeoning New Formalist, trying to cram the narrative of his life into the naturally resistant sonnet form. I produced sixteen sonnets (all rhyming, some Shakespearean, some Petrarchan) that purported to be episdoes from his life. It was an amazing life and you can read about it at a couple of interesting websites: Barney Ross, the Man, Famous Jewish Marines, Jewish Virtual Library, and a poem about him by someone named Benjamin Saltman.
In the spirit of Henry Gould, who often posts his old poems at his blog, HG Poetics, I thought I'd share a couple of sonnets which I haven't looked at or thought about for a long time now. I'm pretty sure, however, that it was this little display of formalism that got me my Stegner Fellowship, even though by the time I got to Stanford I was becoming interested in the kind of experimental poetry that the Bay Area, excepting Stanford, is famous for.
LET ME SEE THAT JAB again. That’s good. That’s fine.
You got good moves, kid. Best I’ve seen on a kike.
Now don’t get me wrong—I’m not the prejudiced kind.
Need your books cooked? Get a Jew. Odds on a fight?
Jew every time. All my mouthpieces are Jews—
but you talk with your fists. Not so strong,
but quick. I can see that. You follow your muse.
That’s what the nuns taught me, right or wrong—
every man has his talent. You got a brain
but you want it beaten loose. I could stop
you, turn you around, save you a lot of pain
if I wanted. Sure, I’m just a dumb, fat wop—
but you could be a lawyer instead of some slob.
A rabbi, even—hah!—look at his eyes. Kid, you got the job.
YOU’VE SEEN THE PICTURE—FIRPO knocking Dempsey
through the ropes on top of three reporters:
Gash of Firpo’s mouth, crash of typewriters,
the massive back striking like a side of beef,
back of Jack’s head a black rag, scissored knees,
crowd howling to see the Manassas Mauler
like a bull bowed to the toreador.
Fourteen, Beryl heard the radio roar, didn’t see
Jack climb up red, or watch him gore
that poor spic with heavy jabs. Count three.
A hush, then bound wrists soared in victory.
two years later he was there for Tunney,
the Fighting Marine,
and saw him score
unhandsome Jack, unmoored.
I CAN STILL TASTE my blood. I was David.
In the limed ring’s glare, Wilbur’s body
mirroring mine, a blink of pain. Naked
each night in the blinds’ light, I made my study.
Triphammering on the balls of my feet,
muscles strung on the guitar of my arm,
flamenco golem for a fist, I beat
bruises in blue air, face a feint. No harm
comes to the anointed. Every alley,
every bit of broken glass, Father’s beard—
these gloves ain’t packed with sand. I keep no tally
of big guys I’ve fed dust. See how I’m feared,
how the bell and swell washes away shame
and pride. Lord, let me stay David. Keep fame.
You can get Barney's complete boxing stats at Cyber Boxing Zone, too.