Fighters, Losers, Declan Ryan
New Walk Editions, 2019 £5.00
The back of this pamphlet lists the boxers mentioned inside, and quotes Jonathan Rendall in saying ‘only the names change’. And in many ways that is absolutely true: the pugilists in these poems all have similar character arcs. However, Rendall was also right to emphasise change. It’s a constant in these poems and the lives of the people within them.
The pamphlet opens with ‘The Resurrection of Diego ‘Chico’ Corrales’ and the changing of the (mouth)guard. In the powerful and highly-charged ‘Blind Cassius and the Bear’, the axis of boxing power shifts — not only from Sonny Liston to the young contender then called Cassius Clay, but also in terms of race relations.
The poem mentions Clay’s link to ‘militant Black Muslims’, but also notes through the mouthpiece of a commentator that Liston was ‘the big negro we pay to keep sassy negroes in line’. That change towards respect for black boxers also brings acceptance. In the final lines, even the press accepts Clay:
All those interminable refrains
of ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’
had been more than foolish songs.
Change is also seen in the shift from Trevor Berbick, then world champion, to Mike Tyson in ‘The Young God of the Catskills I’. However, it’s in the second poem of that name that we see the downward arc for Tyson, who had ‘barely trained’ for this fight and later says ‘I just stopped caring. / He got up. Nobody else had.’
Fighters, Losers ends by looking at the life of the aforementioned Jonathan Rendall: his name is the poem’s title. A former boxing manager, Rendall wrote articles about boxing and was supposed to write ‘the long-mooted biography of Tyson’. However, as a ‘man with ‘the tendency to take on aspects of other people’s identities’ he eventually committed suicide ‘somewhere in the neighbourhood of January.’ This poem contains lines that in many ways summarise the whole publication. ‘Relationships real, invented, elaborated, ended with notes’ is one example. But the one that really hits home is:
Poetry won, and it always would, except his own