I chose today’s selection for, perhaps, the strangest reason in the history of my poetry Fridays. I couldn’t sleep this morning (natch) and turned on Married with Children at 5 AM. I wasn’t watching it, but listening in the background as I tried to drift back to sleep. I don’t remember the plot of the episode as I was barely paying attention, but I could hear Marcy explaining to Peg one of her (a)typical sexual fantasies. This one involved her sitting at the end of the bar in a tight dress while Mike Tyson sat at the other end in a lather. Suddenly, she’s no longer in the bar but in the ring at Madison Square Garden, and Mike Tyson has turned into George Foreman. He’s towering over her and she’s unable to fight back, until she finally succumbs to his power and actually calls him “Mandingo.” Huh. So what, then, does it have to do with today’s selection? Well, boxing, of course.
I wrote “The Stars On Needham Way” in graduate school. I never got a chance to workshop it, but I did get some feedback from a couple of my instructors/poets in the program. It was part of my thesis (Who Would You Be?), which, again, acted primarily as a biographical account of the speaker’s relationship with his father. It’s fair to say this one once again evidenced that the relationship was anything but “healthy.”
The Stars On Needham Way
When finally confronted I thought
I’d put ‘em up, prepare to throw down
on whoever had the balls to call me out.
It’s what he taught me, after all, late
summer days when the humidity
was on its way out – me and my old man,
face-to-chest, sparring back
behind the tool shed on Needham Way
where the world couldn’t find us.
My father, who was like a lit match
sealed inside a plastic bag, not knowing
if the fire will burn through, or if the lack
of oxygen will snuff it out first.
He’d pop from his shirtless crouch,
face weaving in and out
behind his balled-up hands
like an animal dodging crosshairs.
“Take your best shot,” he taunted.
And since I always went right, he’d lean
to his and watch me pummel air to nothing.
Extended past his side-stepped frame,
he’d rear back and snap his ungloved fist
into the side of my head like a metal punch
busting through sheet. It always seemed
to go this way – my right that came up empty,
then his that laid me out.
I never saw the tweeting birds
or twinkling stars the television promised,
that ring of cartoon whistles which
back then might have made me want
to take a beating. Instead I tried to stay down,
fake unconsciousness at the feet of my father,
him thinking he at least handed out
one good enough to brain me.
Whether I twitched or not, he always
raised me to my quaking ankles,
up from my pretend dead to take another shot
at the title he so easily and obviously earned.
Maybe God blessed me with bones
that refused to break, or cursed me’s
more like it, because even when I finally snuck
a soft jab to his chin, my trivial fists could never
land the knockout blow I hungered for,
the stunning punch I realize now
he so badly hoped for, too. So there
we always were: my father and sniveling
Lazarus, doomed to take another dive
before returning to tell no one.