for my father
What's left is the tiny gold glove
hanging from his key chain. But,
before that, he had come to boxing,
as a boy, out of necessity – one more reason
to stay away from home, go late
to that cold house and dinner alone
in the dim kitchen. Perhaps he learned
just to box a stepfather, then turned
that anger into a prize at the Halifax gym.
Later, in New Orleans, there were the books
he couldn't stop reading. A scholar, his eyes
weakening. Fighting, then, a way to live
dangerously. He'd leave his front tooth out
for pictures so that I might understand
living meant suffering, loss. Really living
meant taking risks, so he swallowed
a cockroach in a bar on a dare, dreamt
of being a bullfighter. And at the gym
on Tchoupitoulas Street, he trained
his fists to pound into a bag
the fury contained in his gentle hands.
The red headgear, hiding his face,
could make me think he was someone else,
that my father was somewhere else, not here
holding his body up to pain.
Here's another boxing poem. I actually come across very few works* that grapple in a meaningful way with what masculinity means in our society, which is something I think this poem does very thoughtfully and beautifully, even though it's not written by a man (proof once again that empathy and artistic detachment and understanding are much more important in writing about a group than is being a member of that group – insight is not determined by genetics). It's interesting how central fighting still is to works that examine masculinity – Fight Club is an obvious example, but also the play Blade to the Heat and W C Heinz's novel The Professional (Hemingway could only dream of writing a novel that good).
In this poem, boxing – the primal almost savage urge towards both attack and self-defense limited and guided by rules that turn it into both sport and art – is both forced upon and chosen by the young man. He needs to defend himself against the hardness of the world (first visited on him in the person of his family, specifically a stepfather). But he also feel an inner, visceral need to fight; he's a scholar and voracious reader, but physical risk and danger are part of living in the world, a part he feels the need to embrace. How much can even a scholar understand if he doesn't understand and prepare to fight back against the hardness of the world? It's the gentle and quiet parts of his nature that lead to anger against the thoughtless cruelty of the world: it may sound like a paradox for Trethewey to refer to "the fury contained in his gentle hands" but the fury and the gentleness both reside together and are aspects of each other. (I have read that there is a manifestation of the Buddha shown with fire swirling up as he stamps his feet in anger at humanity's refusal to move towards enlightenment.) He boxes, he swallows cockroaches on a dare, he dreams of bullfighting – and he also tries to help his daughter learn difficult lessons about how unforgiving life can be. Men are expected to live in the world in a certain way, which is why the narrator here has the not uncommon experience of seeing her father in a social role (in this case, in the ring, with his headgear on) and realizing that her father can be a man completely unfamiliar to her.
In the last line, I love the placement of "up," because I see a different shade of meaning there: if she had said "holding up his body to pain" I think that would have implied that he was mostly enduring – that the pain was actively attacking, and he was passively resisting. But "holding his body up to pain" implies that he is choosing to stand against pain – he is seeking it out, which is a way of beating it, even if ultimately the pain wins.
Trethewey is currently the Poet Laureate of the United States. I took this poem from The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry, edited by Arnold Rampersad; you may find other works by Trethewey here.
* If you can think of others to recommend, please do so.