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09/01/2004 Archived Entry: "Read the Introduction of Tom Smario's New Book, 'Knuckle Sandwiches'"
Read the Introduction of Tom Smario's New Book, 'Knuckle Sandwiches'
Written by the CBZ's Award Winning Scribe, Lucius Shepard
I knew a boxer in New York City who once fought for the light heavyweight championship of the world--twenty years after the fact, he had gotten a little punchy. Whenever I didn’t see him for a while, he’d forget about me; I’d just go out of his head. Then I would run into him again and he’d be all, Hey, man! Where you been?, as if suddenly he remembered me and couldn’t understand why a couple of great friends like us weren’t doing some serious hanging out. He was a sweet guy, good-hearted and well-meaning. Each time after I ran into him, he’d start showing up at my door at all hours, wanting to talk or get a beer, whatever, and eventually I’d have to push him away or else he’d move into my life full-time, something my life was too crowded to permit; but for a while we would hang out and talk and have that beer.
Mostly we talked about boxing. He had fought during the seventies, when the light heavyweight division was populated by men like Matthew Saad Muhammad, Marvin Johnson, Victor Galindez, Yaqui Lopez, Dwight Muhhamad Qawi, Michael Spinks, Richie Kates, James Scott. Names that, for boxing people, are articles of faith, emblematic of courage and skill and toughness. It was the Golden Age of the division. I can’t think of any weight division that had so much talent in it at once, and I liked hearing him talk about those days, those men.
One night we were sitting at the bar in the Westervelt Grill on Staten Island, and he zoned out for about fifteen, twenty minutes, something he was prone to do after a few drinks. He sat with his head down, nodding, whispering to himself. I drank and chatted up the bar maid. Finally he lifted his head and said, You know, if boxing was a country--and it is, kinda, y’know, like—the flag, man, it’d have this picture of a rattlesnake lying in some rocks and a motto that says, Be First.
This would have been a remarkable thing for anyone to have said in casual conversation, because it was a wonderful metaphor for the sport, for its violence and venemous politics; but to hear it proceed from the mouth of this poorly educated, brain-damaged man...it seemed that something—a spirit, a principle--was speaking through him. I wasn’t altogether surprised to hear him say these words. Boxers are sometimes given to uttering oddly allusive and eloquent non-sequiters. But the point I’m attempting to make, somewhat circuitously, is that generally when people think about boxing, they think of two men fighting, they think how brutal and primitive it is, what an insult to the body it involves. I won’t try to deny that prize fights are brutal and primitive. Those qualities are, to one degree or another, intrinsic to all competition, and fighting is competition in its purest form; but though the fight itself may lie at the heart of what compells many of us--particularly journalists, artists, writers--to become passionate about boxing, it’s the sport’s blue collar exoticism that seals the deal. It’s the stories that arise from it, the idiosyncratic traditions, the villains (and there are so many villains, the promoters who make their fighters’ checks disappear; the commissions who license fighters with neurological deficits, unqualified ring doctors, incompetent referees and judges: rattlesnakes lying in the rocks) and the heroes and the cowards and the eccentric hangers on (as, for instance, Luis Sorea, an elderly Cubano who before every fight would taste Muhammad Ali’s sweat to determine how strong he would be in the ring that night) and the obsessed trainers whose hearts are broken by a kid they’ve brought along since the age of fourteen and who leaves them for a promise of great things in which the kid should have known better than to believe. A fight is the culminative ritual of the sport, its communion feast; the litany and the doctrine and its true spirituality are hidden from public view, and that hidden part is where you hear the stories, meet the people, and engage all of boxing’s romance and ugliness and truth.
If boxing were another planet, and it is, kind of—as unique in its gravities and physical obligations as is the earth--you would most effectively explore it not by sitting in front of a TV and watching two men fight, but by walking through the doors of a gym and, after a few years of exercising its disciplines and talking to its citizens, you would then understand something about the men fighting on TV, about why they’re fighting (often a more complex reason than you might think) and what they actually win. One person you might want to talk to in this regard is Tom Smario, who’s worked as a cornerman—a cutman, specifically—in rings all over the USA for the past several decades, who does not merely understand the sport, but breathes it, and, more pertinently, is so passionate about its stories, its romance, ugliness and truth, he’s been driven to write two books of poetry about it, the second of which you hold in your hands.
Poetry may seem to you an incongruous complement to such a bloody sport, but if that’s so, then your conception of poetry is badly skewed...and there are reasons for that. Back in the day, John Ciardi and Stephen Spender, poets who should have known better, used their influence and their platform (The Saturday Review of Literature) to channel American poetry into an effete and over-intellectualized pursuit. It gradually became the province of university professors, of men and women who perceived it as a rarefied act, one requiring a Classical education and a certain prissy, priggish temperament (though they might not have used those adjectives), who sat in rooms and thought about “the work” and poetics and contrived experiments in form. Poetry, to their minds, was something ill-suited for un-PhDed. By achieving this result, Spender and Ciardi cut poetry off from its roots, from the energy of experience—at least they narrowed the kind of experience that was deemed acceptable as a fit subject for poetry. They sought to limit poetry to the gray declensions of the upper middle class. Drunks like Li Po and villains like Francois Villon would not have been welcome to sit at the Saturday Review table. Occasionally someone would happen along--Bukowski, Dylan Thomas, some of the Beats--whose genius would force the poetry establishment to take notice of the furious energy they brought to the art, but the doyens of the establishment succeeded for the most part in delimiting the field. Having thus lost its power to connect with people other than those who ascribed to these conditions, poetry became increasingly unpopular until--disregarding of common concerns, removed from the rhythms of the street--it lost its audience and its subversive power.
Over the past twenty-five years, boxing has undergone a similar loss of audience and influence, this due to economic reasons that caused network television to drop it from their schedules, making it impossible for potential fans to follow the evolution of young fighters unless they buy Pay-Per-View and cable shows; and this is not the only similarity between the two disciplines. Both are refinements of the primitive, attempts to impose technique and structure upon basic urges, to channel energy into efficient and graceful forms of expression. At their best, they are simple and beautiful, unencumbered by unnecessary flourishes, and potent. When Francois Villon wrote, “...when I lie down at night/I have a great fear of falling...” he was throwing the poetic equivalent of a left hook to the heart. When Muhammad Ali, while leaping backward, knocked Cleveland Williams down with a left jab, he was Shakespeare delivering with apparent casualness one of those perfect opening lines—”Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment...”--that stun you with their easy power. It’s not, I think, a coincidence today that poetry has evolved into types of competition, word slams in bars and on national stages, and—in Japan--poetry boxing, an event in which two poets stand in a ring and recite. More significantly, the compression and creativity essential to becoming a great fighter, the precision of form and technique, is analogous to the demands of great poetry.
Every boxing arena and gym holds a bubble of air colored by the blood and science and irrationality of the fight game, and each of the poems in Knuckle Sandwiches constitutes a similar bubble whose air is steeped with the raw pungency of moments and events. Their specificity is a large part of their genius--no one else can tell you what Tom Smario is telling you here; no one else can illuminate this strange cultish sport and its relation to the universe in precisely the same accurate and unaffectedly evocative way; and the fact that he presents his poems with such deliberate craft and cleanness of line...Well, if I were to describe Tom Smario’s poems, I would say that as a poet he’s Marvin Hagler on a good night, working his right hook under to excellent advantage, coming steadily forward, breaking you down, and, if you give him half a chance--which you have done by opening his book--he is going to knock you out.
Replies: 2 Comments on this article
I would like to think Tom Smario's work speaks for itself..This introduction seems totally irrevelent in that the writer of the introduction wishes to blow his own horn.. Please do not judge the excellent content by this bad preamble..
Posted by Grandavenuegym@aol.com">Fred Ryan @ 09/09/2004 02:01 AM EST
What else can I say?
--Juan C. Ayllon
Posted by Juan C Ayllon @ 09/01/2004 08:32 PM EST