Muhammad Ali (right) and Ken Norton, 10 September, 1973 (Art Rogers, Los Angeles Times/Wikimedia Commons)

You could construct a history of modern literature just by writing about boxing. Start with the Marquess of Queensberry, who both helped codify the rules of the sport and, by leaving a calling card addressed “To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]” in 1895, started the chain of events that led to Wilde’s conviction on charges of gross indecency. Then you could write about the first time Ernest Hemingway met Wyndham Lewis. The encounter took place in Hemingway’s Paris studio, where one burly modernist, Hemingway, was teaching another, scrappier modernist, Ezra Pound, how to box. (“Ezra had not been boxing very long,” Hemingway remembered, “and I tried to make him look as good as possible.”) To talk about midcentury fiction, you could focus on Norman Mailer, who wrote a book on the 1974 bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Then you could move on to Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote in her 1987 classic On Boxing that “the boxing match is the very image, the more terrifying for being so stylized, of mankind’s collective aggression; its ongoing historical madness.”

Of course, boxing is less central to sports, and to literature, than it once was. We can posit a number of explanations for this cultural fact, from our growing awareness of the neurological damage done in the name of the sport to boxing’s celebration of a particular kind of masculinity. As Oates wrote, “Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.” There were and are female boxers and female boxing fans, but you get Oates’s point.

Over the past several years, though, a new contender for best writer on boxing has stepped into the ring: the critic and poet Declan Ryan. Ryan’s vision of the sport, as outlined in essays for the Baffler, the Guardian, the New Statesman, and elsewhere, differs from that of someone like Mailer. He doesn’t mythopoeticize the sport. For him, boxing is largely about class, time, and the violence that these two forces contain. He came to love the sport from watching it with his working-class father in north London in the 1990s. Ryan’s family was originally from County Mayo in Ireland, and as a boy he sensed an identity between his dad, at the mercy of “unscrupulous contractors,” and the men he saw fight in the ring: “Boxing, like the world of work my father was in, was a trap—of sorts—overseen by corrupt, self-serving men getting rich off the work of—usually—first and second-generation immigrants.” In boxing and in labor, one hoped that the trap wasn’t actually a trap, that the willingness to take a punch or clock long hours would ultimately be rewarded:

The glory the sport seemed to offer, or at least hint at, was a light at the end of a long tunnel, but this was more likely a train coming the other way. The tantalizing hope that by dedication, luck, and perseverance, its participants might free themselves from the old life, one of sacrifice and denial, abided, suggesting there might be something tangible to show for all those years of deferred gratification. For a lucky few, there would be, at least fleetingly—belts, big pay days, glory nights. But the only people who seemed consistently to thrive operated outside the ring, controlling the purses and taking their generous share.

This is false consciousness in its purest form, and we know how intoxicating false consciousness, with its promises and obfuscations, can be. Ryan both unmasks boxing as a mug’s game and recognizes, and makes the reader feel, the nobility that can be achieved within it. “Boxing can provide a haven, a shelter, if the ring is a safer, more controlled version of the chaos outside it,” he writes. “It can be eulogized, elevated, turned…into a canvas onto which more articulate fears are projected. But in the end, it is a fight.” Boxing involves illusion, feinting and juking in the ring, and it allows a new self to be performed into existence. Yet it also involves, as Ryan has said in an interview, a radical kind of “exposure” and self-honesty: fighters ultimately “can’t hide from their intention. There isn’t that ability to pretend you didn’t mean what you were doing as there is in so many other parts of ordinary life.” Ryan’s stance toward boxing is one of profound ambivalence—and, as Oates writes, “no American sport evokes so ambivalent a response in its defenders.”

"Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost."


To be clear, Ryan writes on subjects other than boxing, too. More specifically, he’s an excellent poetry critic, able to think microscopically about form. (In a piece on Catherine Barnett, for example, he notices her occasional use of “rhyme to suggest something like a rare moment of certainty.”) Watching one kind of “sweet science,” boxing, has been good preparation for another kind, poetry. Both are games of angles, requiring energetic movement within severe constraints. Both demand that every action be precise. Both court disaster for a chance at triumph.

Now, with Crisis Actor, Ryan has published his first full-length book of poems. The collection opens with an epigraph from Sonny Liston: “Some day they’re gonna write a Blues song for fighters. / It’ll just be for slow guitars, soft trumpet, and a bell.” Here, Ryan has taken two sentences spoken by Liston after defeating Floyd Patterson in 1962 and broken them into two lines. By treating Liston’s speech as if it were poetry, Ryan allows us to see that Liston’s speech is poetry. The first sentence rushes forward while the second slows down. After making a prediction about a future song, Liston begins to create one: lingering over the instruments that will be needed, dilating upon the imagined performance, and, in doing so, making us hear it.

Other poems in the collection use this technique as well. In “The Young God of the Catskills I,” we read words spoken by Mike Tyson: “I try to catch them right on the tip of the nose, / because I try to punch the bone into the brain.” By breaking the lines, Ryan allows us to hear the run of “t” sounds give way to the brutish consonance of “bone into brain.” Ryan doesn’t so much confer as recognize the musicality of Tyson’s violent language. (This taking of found language and breaking it into poetry resembles what Robert Lowell did with his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters in his collection of sonnets, The Dolphin—a literary historical drama that Ryan has written on for Poetry.) “My Son, the Heart of My Life” ends with the great Rocky Marciano, defeated finally and only by death:

When Marciano’s mother is told the news she will say

Figlio mio, figlio mio, core di mamma!

Joe Louis will kiss the lid of the closed casket,

look at the ceiling of the funeral home,

and say, ‘Something’s gone out of my life. I’m not alone;

something’s gone out of everyone’s life.’

Someone will run down the aisle to hug him,

and see if he's alright.

Again, Ryan’s line breaks clarify and amplify the language Joe Louis used when kissing the casket of a man he once lost to and now mourns: the language of first-person grief (“my life”) is held alongside a collective sorrow (“everyone’s life”). The poem moves without strain between different kinds of language: the plaintive beauty of Marciano’s mother’s lament; the quiet but pleasing assonance of “will kiss the lid” sliding into the alliteration of “closed casket”; the simplicity of Louis’s diction borrowed by the speaker (Louis’s “something” leading to the speaker’s “someone”).

Ryan mines boxing because it’s the stuff of his childhood and what are poets to mine if not their childhoods? “The memory isn’t easy to control,” Ryan writes in “The Rat.” We often remember not so much what we will as what we must. Boxing, as Ryan describes it, is not just an entertainment but a discipline. It shapes its practitioners in body and soul. It also shapes its viewers, and watching and thinking and writing about boxing has attuned Ryan to a particular kind of psychological and physical landscape, even when he’s not writing about the sport. The book’s first poem, “Sidney Road,” opens with this five-line stanza:

A lookout on the world: next door’s wisteria,

its purple leaching out, half hides

a railing that needs paint;

nine wooden planks, enough to stand on.

My freedom as a ‘free lance’.

The wooden planks are enough to stand on, barely, as is a freelance critic’s pay. In this poem, on this road, color has leached from the world, paint has worn away, and the freelancer’s freedom is experienced primarily as a lack, or a series of lacks. The speaker lacks community: “I know fewer names than the years / I’ve been here.” The street lacks foliage: “Rows of identikit SUVs / line the road in lieu of trees / I’ve seen cut back, then down.” This neighborhood, and this life, lack security: “[T]oo many rugby shirts around to feel at ease.” Later, in the title poem, Ryan describes this general sense of life as dwindling. We become habituated to loss and despair until we come to almost long for them: 

An urge to be part of something to the side

of what was left; a margins fetish, a letting things go by

on purpose, then by mistake; the years of afternoons

coffees into brandies, somehow always walking in the rain

to Warren Street or Tottenham Court Road, regretting each step

away from whichever ‘you,’ repression as passion.

One line from “Sidney Road” sums this emotional tonality up nicely: “I was the future, for a week, a while ago.”

Time is an obsession in Crisis Actor. In poem after poem, Ryan considers how we experience time, how we speak of it, and how the way we speak of it shapes the way we experience it. “How can you be gone when I still love you?” the speaker asks in “Halcyon Days.” “When I can call out to you in whichever tense / I choose. Come home.” “Halcyon Days” is a love poem of sorts. There are several others in the collection, all excellent. Ryan writes well of romance, how often it gives way to failure and how often that failure opens up to renewed hope. There’s always a comeback, in boxing and in love. It’s all a matter of the tense you choose.

Many of the best poems in Crisis Actor have nothing to do with boxing, though they dramatize much that one suspects Ryan learned in part from boxing: the absolute attention to the smallest slivers of time (when it comes to getting up off the mat, the difference between ten and eleven seconds is one of kind, not degree); the regret that comes from the passing of years (“Apparently we’re old enough / for it to mean this won’t happen again / in our lifetime,” he writes in “Promises Had Been Made”); the suffering and exhilaration that come from being an embodied being. In a physically and emotionally observant poem called “Fathers and Sons,” the speaker remembers his father, home from a long day at work. The child notices his father’s “hair flat against his head / from the hard-hat or the rain”; he observes his “watery blue shirt / torn at the armpit, / undone more than half-way down, / the patched-up vest / hanging on for another month”; he sees the bone-deep tired man “dozing in front / of the television by 7:30 p.m. / The absence of anything like pleasure.” Then, despite this weariness, in a gesture of love, father brings son upstairs: “Finally, upstairs to put me to bed, / leading us in the song / he made up when he missed me, about my coming back.”

I imagine that the song the speaker’s father makes up is a lot like the blues that Sonny Liston imagines: slow and soft, turning sorrow into music. The book’s final poem, “Trinity Hospital,” ends with a speaker meeting his beloved in “her new favourite spot: / a home for retired sailors; / squat, white, stuccoed, / with a golden bell.” In the presence of love, the space becomes like “a lost Greek chapel, / a monument to light.” And finally, in the last stanza, the blues gives way to another kind of song entirely:

but as you turned towards me 

the golden bell rang to witness 

that I, being of sound mind, 

will be delivered through orange groves 

to you, the white church of my days. 

Crisis Actor
Declan Ryan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$26 | 80 pp.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Published in the April 2024 issue: View Contents
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