Steve Gehrke

Isolation Play

In that pre-glide pause, before he tips
forward and spills himself
through the defense, before he wrong-
foots his man and sends him lurching
after ghosts, he stands somehow both
centered and apart, absent yet integral,
like the guest of honor pausing in the doorway
of a party, wanting only not
to be swarmed, to slip through
the gears, through this whirling clock
he clocks, scanning, appraising,
like a scout at the cliff-edge of the game,
shouldering forward now to test
the shifting currents, oaring the ball
back and forth, back and forth, 
almost nonchalant, though all his senses
bend towards the rim, towards go,
throwing off a twitch, a muscle-feint, 
little false notes that might resolve,
any moment, into song, the toe of one shoe 
grazing the slats, like a needle 
searching for the record’s groove, 
the crowd expanding like an orchestra’s
lungs just before the baton begins to drop, 
as if he might make them believe
that it still is possible to move freely 
through the world, through these ambush-
zones and traps, though even as he dips 
one shoulder and turns his body 
cursive, as he swirls and evades every swat,
every handcuffing grab, the ball rising
above the tyranny of shot clocks
and lifted arms, already the replay’s
being synced, already the crowd eyes
the scoreboard or adjusts the color on
their flatscreens, thinking that they need
to see it just one more time, just once more
they’ll finally believe.




From the beginning, I can see that my error
is in believing that wisdom is the inheritance
of suffering. After all, it might mean nothing
at all to have been sick much of your life.
Mostly, my kidney failure is a bore, as illness
always is. This morning, driving to the dialysis

clinic, wanting and not wanting to have dialysis,
I saw, as if illuminated by headlights, the error
in another way. All these years, I’ve turned my illness
into a metaphor, a correlative for inheritance
or identity, and in doing so I have wasted my life.
Weren’t the metaphors little, or perhaps nothing,

but a way to distract while I made, from nothing,
an artful self-pity? I’d feigned distilling dialysis
into symbol, but really it was just a way to make my life
seem more interesting: an endured flaw, an error
l lived inside. Even now, I sense the inheritance
of that thinking in these lines. About one’s illness

one is always sentimental. I knew my illness
was a useful decoration. But for what? Nothing-
ness? A disconnected psyche? A genetic inheritance
I wished to deny? I loved the way that dialysis
could display and validate my pain. But my error
was in thinking that a painful life was a useful life.

I do believe that there is such a thing as a useful life.
That I do not really live one is not due to illness.
Perhaps I misjudged the world, or made errors
so small I can no longer see them. Nothing
really explains our failures, certainly not dialysis.
I might claim that failure is my inheritance,

but it’s not. In the end, my inheritance
is the same as yours: a few years, some pain, life.
Even so, I’m not unhappy these days, even on dialysis.
I have free time, some money, friends. My illness
affords me a certain immunity. That I do nothing
useful alarms me less than you might think. My error

now is in thinking that an easy life, excused by illness,
is my rightful inheritance. The errors continue. Nothing
changes. Tomorrow, I will get up and drive to dialysis.


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