‘Temporary Champions’ by Darren C. Demaree
“The hero kills. / The other hero / dies. We love it.”
On November 13th, 1982, Korean boxer Duk-Koo Kim and American boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini fought a brutal fourteen rounds for the world lightweight title. The fight ended when Mancini won by TKO–the final punch of the fight caused Kim to fall into a coma just moments after, and he died four days later. The context of this tragic bout is the subject of Darren C. Demaree’s new collection of poems, Temporary Champions.
When I found out Darren was working on this book, I immediately went down the rabbit hole reading everything I could about the fight. Kim wasn’t the only casualty. A short time later, Kim’s mother committed suicide; the referee of the match, Richard Greene, committed suicide as well, unable to cope with his role in the outcome. But what was his role? And what about the audience?
The phrase fate accompli appears only once in the book—“If you throw / punches without eyesight, / the chance that you will end up / blindly targeting the wrong man / becomes a fate accompli”—but the concept permeates the entire collection, so much so that it becomes the soul of it. Fate accompli refers to an event whose outcome has already been decided before those affected find out, leaving them with no other action but to accept it:
How exultant, the exclamation of sport,
no build, no guard to build,
only the wet stone
that is two men, glancing off
of each other’s intent.
Accepting this fate accompli requires reflection, specifically, that of intent, and hence culpability. It’s the desire for spectacle, and what Demaree accomplishes with both power and surprise is the unification of culpability between the fighters and the audience, the “colonies / of possible mourners.” But he also asks us, why should we deserve mourning? Before the fight, Mancini said it would be “a war.” In the poem “A Choice in Translation,” we’re told of a note Kim wrote in his hotel room before the fight, one initially translated by the media as “kill or be killed,” but which had been incorrect—“when he looked up / at night, before he turned off the lamp / he saw ‘live or die.’”
Two fighters predicted an outcome that came to pass, and here we are after the fact, knowing why it is we’ve come, but telling ourselves our hunger for entertainment has limits. In fact, Demaree is exposing our true capacity for witness: we don’t see potential death as a limit, but an opportunity. Temporary Champions reveals the purist forms of human nature: viciousness and vulnerability. It’s difficult to add resonance to an already emotionally charged history, but the imagined voices here, like a boxer’s unrelenting punches, are calculated, surgical. The right cross is an action, the counter is an accusation. “Take part in the existence of gidae, / of hope, of the violent parade of self…” The audience feeds off energy from the fighters feeding off the energy of their audience, and so the savage feast becomes a cycle, the Bakhtinian grotesque, Demaree’s “violent parade.”
The lineation of the poems inhabits this chaotic froth too, its “brutal music.” At some point while reading the book you realize that your muscles have begun, however subtly, to calm and flinch and calm again, to shudder with Demaree’s lyric. When the lines are stretched—“I can only imagine the square-ness of his jaw / & the absolute beating that became his youth”—it calls back the whoosh of a boxer’s feet strafing over the mat, or the “duck and cover” to avoid a knockout. But these are techniques utilized in the process of escape. More often the form is quick, locked, fierce in its turns—“All shadow, no / factory, a beast / of a man drifting”—so that there is no true escape; no one is capable of avoiding destruction in its organic processing, its inevitability. We are all, then, backed into a corner trying to cushion the blows. How terrifying, we think, to have been inside of the battle that night. How terrifying, too, to realize our own responsibility in its ending, even all of these years later, as Demaree confesses “learning that I am / not much of an enthusiast / for what it is men can do.”
I keep coming back to this idea of fate accompli, and how the rippling effect is never-ending. If it’s true that memories are a flash, then Demaree is throwing light on the still frames of our mouths open with joy, our teeth set to devour. Through a past tragedy, he forces us to confront our present mentality.
The fourteen rounds of the fight are organized chronologically throughout the book, but when the fighters are in their corners, and the audience is quietly catching its breath, the interspersing poems are compelling pleas from ghosts of fighter and family and witness alike, forced to accept “what it is men can do”—the constant hinge of both our revelry and shame.
I grew up loving boxing, its blood and bombast, its slip-steps and sway, the foot planting for a haymaker. I watched men like “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Thomas “Hitman” Hearns, and Hector “Macho” Camacho. Maybe I loved it because I had been too young for Mancini and Kim. But that’s exactly how Demeree’s language operates—to complicate feelings of worship, culpability, and intent through meditations that crash and release just enough that we’re never comfortable with the events or with ourselves.
Warriors died. Watchers died, too. Nobody was
saved, but the breaking sky was not breaking
promises, it was delivering on them.
To extract consolation from darkness is a formidable task, even more so when the only consolation is that we finally face our fate accompli. When a poem tells us “how a little light / can take / the narrows / & explode / to become / the whole story,” it means we’re still running to turn on that light, no matter the possible consequences. That’s what I find so fascinating about Temporary Champions: the beauty is rightfully reserved for the fighters, but the elegy is for us.