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