I guess it makes sense to ring in the new year with a poem about Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, the story of boxing legend James J. Braddock’s comeback after the Great Depression nearly tore his family apart, when the economic pressure to fight in spite of a disqualifying injury got him suspended from the ring. Starring Russell Crowe, Renee Zellweger and Paul Giamatti, this is one of my (and Bagehot’s!) favorite films of all time, even though I’ve never followed boxing (or boxing movies). I also love the soundtrack, by Thomas Newman, which has a track named after a line in the movie – “All Prayed Out.”
This poem, based on the 39th Psalm, is inspired by a tear-jerker of a scene in which the suspended and still-injured Braddock revisits the boxing club to ask for loose change, after having already signed on for unemployment relief, in order to get the heat turned back on and buy food for the kids. Braddock had been a rising star in boxing before the Depression, making enough money to own a cab company and provide a middle-class life for his family, so it’s jarring for the people who knew him then to see him now. Jarring for him, too.
The screencap above is from an earlier scene in the movie. Just as he had to hide his injury to fight, he has to conceal his injury to get work at the docks now that boxing isn’t an option any more. His wife Mae, played by Renee Zellweger, hides the cast with shoe polish.
I thought, “Today I will hold my peace instead.
I should not give voice in my prayers to anger
as long as my family’s hardships swell my throat.”
I said nothing – waited in silence, prayed out.
I kept still, while my children went hungry, cold,
punished by the pain in my useless right hand.
My heart rose, on fire, in my throat that night.
In my private thoughts a thousand questions burned.
I confided in my wife I did not know
where we would end another winter ourselves
or how much longer we could keep the children.
You can see how fleeting a man’s success is.
Listen, we built what I had together here,
and I would have been nothing if not for you.
We’re each and all a breath away from ruin.
The long shadow of want has touched all of you.
To murmur under one’s breath for help – men work
without knowing day to day how they will eat.
I came here last, expecting little; I need
your help to turn the heat back on, and buy milk.
Your generosity is all I can ask.
Don’t turn me back without what I need in scorn.
I said nothing before, when you laid me off,
for it was your right and your own decision.
But do not punish me for fighting injured,
not today – my family needed me that night.
You rebuked me then and you chastise me now,
when all that I built here has melted away.
All I have left is the strength to ask for help.
Hear me out, for the sake of our past; this once,
help me find the means to keep my children warm,
do not turn aside from my embarrassment.
For we have done great things here, earning laurels,
and each of us made our start here in his turn.
But look away for me – I must catch my breath
before I leave. Outside these walls, I’m no one.