Mr. Africa Poetry Lounge!

Mohammed Ali At The Ring-side, 1985

The arena is darkened. A feast of blood

Will follow duly; the spotlights have been borrowed

For a while. These ringside prances

Merely serve to whet the appetite. Gladiators,

Clad tonight in formal mufti, customized,

Milk recognition, savour the night-off,

Show off Rites.

Ill fitted in this voyeur company

The desperate arm wrap of the tiring heart

Gives place to social hugs, the slow count

One to ten to a snappy "Give me five!"

Toothpaste grins replace the death-mask

Rubber gumshield grimaces. Promiscuous

Peck-a-cheek supplants the maestro's peek-a-boo.

The roped arena waits; an umpire tests the floor,

Tests the whiplash boundaries of the rope.

The gallants' exhibition rounds possess

These foreplay rounds. Gloves in silk-white sheen

Rout lint and leather. Paco Rabanne rules the air.

A tight-arsed soubriette checks her placard smile

To sign the rounds for blood and gore.

Eased from the navel of Bitch-Mother Fame

A microphone, neck-ruffed silver filigree - as one

Who would usurp the victor's garland -- stabs the air

For instant prophesies. In cosy insulation, bathed

In tele-glow, distant homes have built

Their own vicarious rings - the forecast claimed

Four million viewers on the cable deal alone;

Much "bread" was loaded on the scales

At weighing hour - till scores are settled. One

Will leave the fickle womb tonight

Smeared in combat fluids, a broken foetus.

The other, toned in fire, a dogged phoenix

Oblivious of the slow countdown of inner hurts

Will thrust his leaden fists in air

Night prince of the world of dreams.

One sits still. His silence is a dying count.

At last the lens acknowledges the tested

Hulk that dominates, even in repose,

The giddy rounds of furs and diamond pins.

A brief salute - the camera is kind -

Discreetly pans, and masks the doubletalk

Of medicine men - "Has the syndrome

But not the consequence." Promoters, handlers

It's time to throw in the towel - Parkinson's

Polysyllables have failed to tease a rhyme

From the once nimble Louisville Lips.

The camera flees, distressed. But not before

The fire of battle flashes in those eyes

Rekindled by the moment's urge to centre stage.

He rules the night space even now, bestrides

The treacherous domain with thighs of bronze,

A dancing mural of delights. Oh Ali! Ale-e-e...

What music hurts the massive head tonight, Ali!

The drums, the tin cans, the guitars and mbira of Zaire?

Aa-lee! Aa-lee Bomaye!

The Rumble in the Jungle? Beauty and the Beast?

Roll call of Bum-a-Month. The rope-a-dope?

The Thrilla in Manilla? - Ah-lee! Ah-lee!
"The closest thing to death", you said. Was that

The greatest, saddest prophecy of all? Oh, Ali!

Black tarantula whose antics hypnotize the foe!

Butterfly side slipping death from rocket probes.

Bee whose sting, unsheathed, picks the teeth

Of the raging hippopotamus, then fans

The jaws' convergence with its flighty wings.

Needle that threads the snapping fangs

Of crocodiles, knots the tusks of elephants

On rampage. Cricket that claps and chirrups

Round the flailing horn of the rhinoceros,

Then shuffles, does a bugaloo, tap-dances on its tip.

Space that yields, then drowns the intruder

In showers of sparks - oh Ali! Ali!

Esu with faces turned to all four compass points

Astride a weather vane; they sought to trap him,

Slapped the wind each time. He brings a message--

All know the messenger, the neighbourhood is roused -

Yet no one sees his face, he waits for no reply,

Only that combination three-four calling card,

The wasp-tail legend: I've been here and gone.

Mortar that goads the pestle: do you call that

Pounding? The yam is not yet smooth -

Pound, dope, pound! When I have eaten the yam,

I'll chew the fibre that once called itself

A pestle! Warrior who said, "I will not fight".

And proved a prophet's call to arms against a war.

Cassius Marcellus, Warrior, Muhammed Prophet,

Flesh is clay, all, all too brittle mould.

The bout is over. Frayed and split and autographed,

The gloves are hung up in the Hall of Fame -

Still loaded, even from that first blaze of gold

And glory. Awed multitudes will gaze,

New questers feast on these mementos

And from their shell-shocked remnants

Re-invoke the spell.

But the sorcerer is gone,

The lion withdrawn to a lair of time and space

Inaccessible as the sacred lining of a crown

When kings were kings, and lords of rhyme and pace.

The enchantment is over but, the spell remains.

Written by Wole Soyinka


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