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Free Verse: Adrian Matejka

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 13, 2010 - This month's poem is by Adrian Matejka, and it's from the point of view of boxing legend Jack Johnson. July 4, 2010, was the 100-year anniversary of Jack Johnson's victory over the great white hope, Jim Jeffries, in Reno, Nev. In part due to Jeffries and other white fighters drawing the color line, it took Jack Johnson almost 12 years to get a shot at the heavyweight title. In the early 20th century, African-American boxers were frequently denied the opportunity to compete in proper prize fights. Instead, they were expected to contest in battle royale settings where only the last fighter standing would be paid. Jack Johnson began his boxing career in battle royales and, as champion, refereed battles for aspiring African-American pugilists.

Battle Royale

Jack Johnson

Back then, they'd chain a bear
in the middle of the bear garden

& let the dogs loose. Iron chains
around a bear's neck don't slow

him too much. A bear will always
make short work of a dog. Shakespeare

said Sackerson did it more than twenty
times to dogs & wildcats alike.

& since most creatures are naturally
afraid of bears, there wouldn't

always be much of a show in the bear
garden. So the handlers sometimes put

the bear's eyes out or took his teeth
to make the fight more sporting.

I believe you need eyes
more than you need teeth in a fight,

but losing either makes a bear a little
less mean. Once baiting was against

the law, some smart somebody
figured coloreds would fight just

as hard if hungry enough. So they
rounded up the skinniest of us,

had us strip to trousers, then blindfolded
us before the fight. They turned us

in hard circles a few times on
the ring steps like a motor car engine

before pushing us between the ropes.
When the bell rang, it seemed

like I got hit from eight directions.
I didn't know where those punches

came from, but I swung so hard
my shoulder hasn't been right since

because the man said only the last
darky on his feet gets a meal.

Adrian Matejka is the author of "The Devil's Garden" (Alice James Books) and "Mixology" (Penguin USA), which was a winner of the 2008 National Poetry Series. "Battle Royale" is from his manuscript-in-progress, "The Big Smoke: Jack Johnson Tells It." He teaches at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where he is the William and Margaret Going Endowed Professorship recipient for 2010-11. 

Richard Newman, River Styx editor for 15 years, is the author of two full-length poetry collections. He teaches poetry and literature at St. Louis Community College and co-directs the River Styx at Duff's reading series.

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