Jay Hopler's poem The Rooster King seems at first like a paean to the good sport of chicken righting, but one detects an increasing exaggeration of the terms until a certain falseness of claim is exposed. In the early lines, one is attracted to the cocksure bravado of Hopler's language and quickly appreciates the parody of athletic boasting and promotion that has long made professional sports just a much a matter of running one's mouth as it is with the combined assets of agility, speed, instinct, and determination. One might imagine this as an old forties Warner Brothers barnyard cartoon featuring a caricature of Muhammad Ali strutting around in the background amid the rain barrels and the hens while a Don King lookalike flaps his wings (if not his gums) about the legend and good graces of his man rooster, The Rooster King.Hopler seems to have absorbed his Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon, as well as the more recent waxing about boxers by the late Norman Mailer and Joyce Carole Oates, as his writing has a high, cultivated lift to it's boasting, the myth-making that wants to convert something that is merely a few suppressed coughs from being mere thuggery and criminal enterprise into a tale of heroism, reaching the implied conclusion that some poor, hapless soul--or rooster--has had their character in the fires of tribulation and has made their brute aggression and ability to ignore pain into an art.
Like a cut throat and doesn't………………………………….............Bleed. And when he bleeds,He bleeds whiskey—Fighting Cock: 103-proof Kentucky StraightBourbon—the light of the world.The light of the world:Ruined. Magnificent; ferocious, gorgeous—So what? You think he's afraid of fire? He wasn't born; he was forged.He's the napalm love letter, the sweetheartCarpet bomb, the 1967 PontiacWith a straight-6, single-barrelBoot in the face. No ram untoThe shackle, this bantam assassin, his death-red hackles flaring like a funeral pyre.He's the Sacred Heart of JesusWound 'round with barbed wire, the crucifiedChrist tattooed on the back of a contract killer.
It's argued that the poem is a play on the sufferings of Jesus, but Hopler's intentions are grittier, I think. The pain and suffering of Christ on the cross is a plausible scenario, but Hopler intended a narrower reference, I think. The gospel accounts of his death are not all that reliable as an accurate historical record, with the elaborations of his story purposefully elevating the tale to sanctified mythology that demands that we regard Christ as a man of destiny fated with enacting an absurdly convoluted Plan to make humankind worthy of God's love. All things considered, I suspect the actual Jesus had as much choice as anyone else had when confronted with a situation as to flee from danger or face his accusers. The boxing analogy is apter, I think, and even a gladiator comparison is a closer fit to the level of metaphor Hopler is successfully attempting. Roosters, being animals with only instinct to push their actions, have no choice but to battle; boxers, the poor men who try to make a living with their fists in some vague hope of achieving, have no choice but to battle because brawn was their only resource. What I read Hopler as doing is deconstructing the layers of heroic mythic association on the idea of brutal spectacle being somehow honorable and necessary for the social and political cohesion of the populace by applying the meme to an absurd example, a battling rooster. For all the fanfare the pitchman can muster, it never eludes us, not for a second, that what he's extolling is a bloody, awful event. The attempt to graft a grand narrative to the cockfighting exposes the lie of battling skill and that more often than not the results are determined not with skill or guile or flashes of pugnacious brilliance, but rather with raw, unforgiving, unyielding. He who is bigger, stronger, faster wins the fracas.
Hopler does a sweet balancing act here between heaping on the hyperbole and maintaining a straight face as he ramps the praise and the qualifications meant to soften the audience's perception of the frenzied, gouging agony before them. Each stab, peck, talon rip and snap is valorized, connected by association to great battles, hero's funerals, the spirit of invention that forges raw steel into classic automobiles; the declarations become precarious and unsustainable if questioned an iota. One only turns up the volume of the pitchman's incantation and seeks to enter into the illusion that the banal bit of fatal sport betting is a History in the Making. Hopler understands it seems, the vanity the pitchman is speaking to. The rhetoric, though, isn't for the nominally honored Rooster King, nor does it have anything to do with the skills or extraordinary qualities the toastmaster makes claim for; rather, the tale-telling and accumulating myth-making are for the audience's sake, a sales pitch voiced in such a way that it dually obscures the meanness of the activity and creates the illusion that the creature is there, prepared for combat, by some manner of free choice. It's a rhetorical zone that is impermeable to logic, and it is banter that is kept up without pause, to concoct a dramatic narrative over the bare facts of the situation--that these birds, and the analogous boxers they're standing in for, have no choice in whether they fight or not. Whether through the repetitive causation of murderous behavior modification, or the grim forces of economic survival, the fighting, the killing has nothing to do with glory, legend or principles: the goal is for one of the combatants to not ring the arena alive.