Joe Louis’s Fist

1.

After the sun rose into rust between gravel and horizon,
after the scent of you oxidized the steel of my car going
into the lidocaine of the morning air as the highway slid

into northeast Detroit past Chill & Mingle,
I did a double-take and took a wrong turn at Rim Repair.
(Long ago my father said I should see the fist).

No one spoke Swahili on 12th Street, still rubble
after the blind pigs folded up.
It was a cliché of the image of itself but it was, it was

like nothing, the vacant burned-out bungalows, car parts, metal scraps
arson jobs, abandoned homes, barbed wire playgrounds,
shacks pummeled along Six Mile Road—derelict since ’67.

2.

My father said when Louis won, the radio static was a wave
of sound that stayed all night like the riots blocks away in Harlem,
as the scent of lilac and gin wafted down Broadway to his window

across from the Columbia gates where the sounds of
Fletcher Henderson and Dizzy buzzed the air,
where the mock Nazi salutes were shadows over the

granite lions and snake-dancing, and car horns
banged the tar and busted windshields,
even coffee shops south of 116th were looted.

3.

It came back in fragments—through the gauze
of the summer of love, through Lucy in the Sky
and other amnesias; streets of burnt-out buildings,

paratroopers bivouacked in high schools with gas and bayonets.
By 6 a.m. July 23 national guards were walking
in the rain of black cinder and pillars of smoke—

a black body hanging from a fence of an auto part yard,
whisky-faced boys shooting through the fire
as torn bags of loot trailed the streets.

Prostitutes used pool cues to defend themselves.
Booze and cartridge smoke ate their skin.
One trooper said it looked like Berlin in ’45.

4.

Samson, David, and Elijah in one left hook
my father said, (6/22/38) upbraided Neville Chamberlain
liberated Austria and Sudetenland

knocked the lights out in Berlin—
sent Polish Jews into the boulevards
for one night of phantasmal liberation.

Because Hitler banned jazz, because Black Moses led
crowds and crowds to the marvelous, inscrutable, overwhelming
balked dreams of revenge, millions seeped out of doorways, alleys, tenements—

dreaming of the diamond pots, of Chrysler heaven,
the golden girls of Hollywood and Shirley Temple
who rubbed some salt into his hands for luck.

Untermensch from Alabama—
sucker for the right hand—the other side of Hailee Salisee
black men howled to him from their electric chairs.

5.

When I drove past Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard
and the Hitsville USA sign on the studio-house,
the lights were out and I could only

imagine the snake pit where Smokey Robinson
spun into vinyl, where “Heat Wave”
came as sweet blackmail in the beach air of ’64,

where the Funkbrothers and Martha Reeves
took the mini opera and dumped it on its head.

By the time I hit Jefferson and Woodward
the sun was glaring on the high windows.
and then it hit me—spinning the light—

horizontal two-foot arm smashing the blue
through the empty pyramid holding it up
in the glare of skyscraper glass: molten

bronze-hand, hypotenuse of history,
displaced knuckles—

the smooth-casting over the gouged-out wounds—
the naked, beloved, half-known forms.

Peter Balakian is the author of seven books of poems, most recently Ziggurat and the forthcoming Ozone Journal, in which this poem will appear. His memoir Black Dog of Fate won the PEN/Albrand Award, and his book The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response was a New York Times best seller. He teaches at Colgate.
 

Source Citation

Balakian, Peter. 2014. Joe Louis's Fist. Tikkun 29(2): 72.

tags: Poetry, Poetry & Fiction   
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