Steve P. Gehrke

Sisyphus by Choice, 1985
“To that point, the sports medical community had viewed a concussion as an invisible injury. You couldn’t x-ray it or scope it or put a cast on it, so how serious could it be?”
                     — League of Denial, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

                     Though it leaves deep tracks in the yard
and the neighbors complain, he grunts and drives
                     and heaves and beseeches it on with back
arched and muscles corded, using frantic
                     little cha-cha steps, his breath held,

his face so red and tortured it might be a pillory
                     he’s ferrying rather than this blocking sled
that sits all year like a piece of a tractor
                     in the lawn. The kids on the block
like to stop to gape at this guy so muscled

                     he looks like he’s awoken from
an allegory—a piece of mountain granted
                     life and condemned to hate it—
though they know him like they know their pastors,
                     see him on TV each week, know

he’s a center, a snapper, a blockader, know
                     he’s the lug who pins the team together.
He ignores their chants or calls for autographs
                     and spears his body towards it like
he’s trying to unbeach a mislaid whale

                     or like it’s the fender and front end
of a truck he wants to wreck or crack at least,
                     but it only shudders and clangors,
retreats a bit, then sits there, exactly as before.
                     Why is it, he wonders, we’re contracted

to push the same dumb shit around our brains
                     forever—the sticks and switches,
the motels, the wells his father made
                     him drill, the welts. Later, his body,
aching, though airy, will miss the weight,

                     the digging in, and will feel the ease
as a kind of danger. Spend enough time in pain
                     and not to be seems a weakness
of the meek. He’ll miss the hurt the most and will
                     itch to go lift weights, or if that’s a non-

starter, to push the walls back and forth across
                     the house. The trick is to like the pain,
he’d chant on repeat, summers, he and his
                     brother turning earth like grade-
school gravers, all day untombing taters in the heat,

                     his father working him until his vision
blurred, and he felt the dirt impacted in his
                     brain. Some had turned to rot
while buried and would squash like dead birds
                     when grabbed, as if there was a curse

in that soil that he wasn’t yet strong enough
                     to reverse. A life spoiled by potatoes—
it makes you snicker. But why not?
                     It’s the things we don’t know are there
that control us—fear of cancer or a wife’s affair,

                     fear of that other center who’s harder,
sweatier, collared to a sled that is heavier,
                     who wants to burrow into his position
and eat away his number. Which is why
                     he stuns them at the snap, all game,

each week, until they’re greased, the dents
                     piling up on his helmet like it’s hailing.
The trick is to keep beasting hard even when
                     you’re dizzy. The brain, he’s assured,
is a magic glass that can be smashed and

                     forever recreated. It scatters on one play
and by the next, or another, it huddles back together,
                     more or less. Though lately, he’s grown
pacey, a little spacey, has taken to peaking out
                     the blinds like he’s waiting for someone

who is and is not a stranger to arrive, the house
                     so cushioned, at nights, he can’t stand to be
inside it. In the dark, their pads stiffened
                     in the night air, the slabs on the sled
he rams look and feel, against his shoulder,

                     more like shields with only ghosts behind
them, the contraption clattering like armor. Enough,
                     he thinks, the past is called that because it’s over.
But you can’t annul your brain by saying things.
                     And not all ghosts are former.



Farmer's Market

Eight years after my divorce, after too much
hurt to repair, when, after dialysis, I appeared
washed out at the Farmer’s Market before her,
my ex-wife let me take refuge on her sofa,
and nursed me with talk long into the night,
and I remembered again how well
and then how little I had known her.
I think we should mourn how behind each face
there is an entire planet and we spend
our lives looking only at its clouds. I think
those small, seemingly meaningless phrases
of agreement muttered in passing, those things
we say to get along, when in our hearts we don’t
really mean them, are in fact lie after lie
we are telling, white lies, of course, harmless,
though they float up, swarm away our faces,
though they are so ingrained, within the factory
of lies we call niceness, that the other, truer
parts of self can flutter for years like lost birds
within them, never getting out, directionless,
while we go along believing small talk
is the only talk, and the soul says: but
there was something else I meant to say,
there was something else I meant…

What good does it do to think about it now?
Except that maybe you, too, have sat
with a few lost friends regathered at a table
for a dinner and felt the chit-chat turning
chronic, the comments—about the waiter
and the one who has a book coming out—
becoming strained. And have you, too, felt
that quiet shipwreck of unknowing building
in your chest while you watch the faces of friends
dissolving back into strangers and strain
for something else to say? And what else is
there to say, because that marriage is over, though
we kept talking anyway, about her father,
my breakdown, about poetry and childhood,
kept talking until I felt our past selves reach out
and acknowledge one another, as dogs who,
raised together, might yip with joy and
longing as they pass on the street before
being gently pulled along by their owners.



Steve Gehrke is author of three books, including Michelangelo's Seizure, which was selected for the National Poetry Series.