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The Greatest

A poem by Robert Hedin

  • What I remember most about Muhammad Ali
  • Are not the fast hands and loose, graceful footwork,
  • Or Manila or Zaire. Or even what came after­ —
  • The slurred speech, the sad slow shuffle.
  • No, what I remember is a boy somewhere
  • In the foothills of the snowy Zagros Mountains,
  • A small Kurdish boy in a long blue robe
  • Who gave us directions that day we were lost,
  • And how he knew nothing of America
  • But two syllables he sang over and over
  • In the high: unbroken voice of a girl —
  • Ali, Ali­ — then laughed and all at once
  • Began to bob and weave, jabbing and juking,
  • His robe flaring a moment like a fighter’s.
  • Ali. One word, two bright syllables
  • That turned to smoke in the morning air.
  • And he pointed down the long dusty road
  • To Hatra and Ur, the ruins of Babylon,
  • And the two ancient rivers we had read about,
  • Their dark starless waters draining away into fog.

Poet and translator Robert Hedin serves as founding director of the Anderson Center, an artist retreat, in Red Wing, Minnesota. His most recent books of poems and translations include Poems Prose Poems and The Lure-Maker from Posio: Prose Poems of Dag T. Straumsvåg, both published by Red Dragonfly Press. He is, in addition, the editor of the important anthology Old Glory: American War Poems from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror. “The Greatest” is from his collection Poems Prose Poems, also published by Red Dragonfly Press. It is printed by permission.

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A darker shade of twilight
  • What I remember most about Muhammad Ali
  • Are not the fast hands and loose, graceful footwork,
  • Or Manila or Zaire. Or even what came after­ —
  • The slurred speech, the sad slow shuffle.
  • No, what I remember is a boy somewhere
  • In the foothills of the snowy Zagros Mountains,
  • A small Kurdish boy in a long blue robe
  • Who gave us directions that day we were lost,
  • And how he knew nothing of America
  • But two syllables he sang over and over
  • In the high: unbroken voice of a girl —
  • Ali, Ali­ — then laughed and all at once
  • Began to bob and weave, jabbing and juking,
  • His robe flaring a moment like a fighter’s.
  • Ali. One word, two bright syllables
  • That turned to smoke in the morning air.
  • And he pointed down the long dusty road
  • To Hatra and Ur, the ruins of Babylon,
  • And the two ancient rivers we had read about,
  • Their dark starless waters draining away into fog.

Poet and translator Robert Hedin serves as founding director of the Anderson Center, an artist retreat, in Red Wing, Minnesota. His most recent books of poems and translations include Poems Prose Poems and The Lure-Maker from Posio: Prose Poems of Dag T. Straumsvåg, both published by Red Dragonfly Press. He is, in addition, the editor of the important anthology Old Glory: American War Poems from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror. “The Greatest” is from his collection Poems Prose Poems, also published by Red Dragonfly Press. It is printed by permission.

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