Battle Royale

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.

©Originally appeared in The American Poetry Review