17 June 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/25

Here's another boxing poem, and it's also another one by Ishmael Reed:

Petite Kid Everett

The bantamweight King of
He couldn't box
He couldn't dance
He just kept coming at
you, glass chin first
Taking five punches for
every one he connected with

Petite Kid Everett
He missed a lot
Slipped a lot and
By mid-life he'd
developed one heck
of a sorehead
Took to fighting in
the alley
Gave up wearing a mouthpiece
Beat up his trainers
Beat up the referee
Beat up his fans
Beat up everybody who was
in his corner

Even jumped on Houston Jr.
the lame pail boy
Who didn't have good sense
Petite Kid Everett
There's talk of a comeback
He's got new backers
He stands on one of the four
corners, near the Prudential Life
Trading blows with ghosts
Don't it make you wanna cry?

Ishmael Reed

Here are some things I love about this poem:

I love that he's "Petite" Kid Everett; even more than little or tiny or Kid, petite gives you a sense of overwhelming odds against him – is it the fancy Frenchness of the word? its association with women's sizes? its general aura of daintiness? But it also sounds a bit grander than little or tiny: again, the fancy Frenchness, etc. In an almost Dickensian way, a lot of the character – his persistence, his loserdom – is rolled up in the name.

I love that he ends up standing on a corner, "near the Prudential Life / Building" – and there no doubt is an actual Prudential Life insurance company building on that corner in Newark, but a prudential approach to life is exactly what the struggling Petite Kid does not have – on one side, the vast imperturbable substantial walls of an impersonal calculating agency, on the other, a doomed man flailing away with increasingly random violence against first opponents, then friends, then bystanders, then ghosts – obsessions, visions, insubstantial but inescapable hallucinations.

And unlike last week's poem, the boxer's persistence isn't seen as necessarily an admirable, hopeful quality, and that's another thing I love about this poem: the way the last line jolts the whole thing into a certain framework. This isn't a sociological or protest poem about a man denied opportunities; it's much deeper than that, an encapsulation of rueful and even tragic wisdom about what life, at a basic level, is like, as the hapless Petite Kid spirals ineluctably down.

I took this from Reed's New and Collected Poems, 1964 - 2006.

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