Monday, June 18, 2007

Poetry Blast '07!

A few months ago my wife discovered this poem online. It's by Mark Doty.

At the Gym

This salt-stain spot
marks the place where men
lay down their heads,
back to the bench,

and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they've chosen
this time: more reps,

more weight, the upward shove
of it leaving, collectively,
this sign of where we've been:
shroud-stain, negative

flashed onto the vinyl
where we push something
unyielding skyward,
gaining some power

at least over flesh,
which goads with desire,
and terrifies with frailty.
Who could say who's

added his heat to the nimbus
of our intent, here where
we make ourselves:
something difficult

lifted, pressed or curled,
Power over beauty,
power over power!
Though there's something more

tender, beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.

Here is some halo
the living made together.

The upshot of most writing about exercise and sport can pretty well be summed up by the oft-repeated ABC Wide World of Sports tag line, "the thrill of victory and, agony of defeat." Real or imaginary, the stories generally end in one of two ways: great triumph or crushing humiliation. Don't get me wrong, as boring as I find most professional sports, I absolutely love books and movies about athletic contests. I must have watched ROCKY 40 times. And I couldn't name you three pro boxers currently in the circuit (well, maybe I could -- but only because I'm a fan of that other Rocky-offshoot: ESPN II's The Contender.)

I consider most sports to be the payoff in a metaphorical life-drama -- the third act of a drama in which I haven't been privy to Acts One or Two. Watching sports usually feels to me like walking in on the last half-hour of a movie, having missed all the setup. Lots of sound and fury, that to me, signifies nothing.

Strange to be admitting this as a trainer-guy, but I think what I love is the human drama behind all that sweat, technique, poise, and prowess. If I know something about the team I'm watching, or the players' histories, or something that's going on in an athlete's life off the field, then I start to care. I've got a sportswriter friend who convinced me that enjoying sports is a connaisseur's game. Know more, about the nuances of the game and about the players, and you love it more. The point was driven home to me last year when I went to see the Cardinals play the Dodgers with a close friend. Damned if my pal Johnny didn't know so much about each guy who came up to bat, about each person's quirks and proclivities and personal history that each pitch became a tiny three-act drama, and for once, in my eyes, the game took on a scale appropriate to its status as the mythic Great American Sport.

Now, on to Mark Doty's poem. It's about working out by oneself, which for most people bears about as much resemblance to team sports as Xbox has to Nascar. Still, something compels me, and people like me, to keep doing exercising, even to spend a fair amount of time and energy thinking and writing about it. In my more reflective moods I'll sit down like Rodin's "The Thinker" and try to apply the collective force of my few active brain cells towards figuring out what the Sam Hill keeps me and a handful of other gym addicts doing our thing.

We're talking about bench-pressing, here, not the flight of the bumblebee, but Doty still manages to get at something here, the "something more / tender, beneath our vanity, / our will to become objects / of desire: we sweat the mark / of our presence onto the cloth."

I often joke that without vanity I'd have no job. I still think there's truth to that, but I think as a motivating force vanity burns itself out pretty fast. At some point, you either start to enjoy working out -- be it the simple act of regularly and systematically confronting your limits, or the cameraderie of the gym environment, or the meditative place that a good workout takes you -- or you hang it up. Why some people start to enjoy this weird practice of "hoisting nothing that need be lifted" and others see nothing in it but lunacy is a mystery to me.

Some months ago I met a guy at the swimming pool who was going on 90 years old. He kept whacking me with his arm when we passed one another in the lane, so I stopped him, respectfully, to address the issue. Turned out he had shoulder problems and general mobility issues and good, long swimming form had long ago become impossible for him. And muscles, a six-pack, a killer physique? Not really in the cards for him, realistically speaking. Still, there he was, hashing away, doing his best, putting in the hours and the effort. He'd swum varsity at USC back in the day, and had even gone to the Olympic trials.

Was it in fact vanity that still motivated Bob? Or some need to relive his days of glory? Or was it the simple joy of doing it? Or was he raging against the dying of the light?

I'm enough of an exercise nut to think that using and moving the body, at whatever level we're capable, in and of itself, can be incredibly fulfilling. I think we actually learn from movement, just as we learn from reading or conversing or listening to music or looking at great art. Mark Doty's poem gets at some of the collective, communal, secular-religiosity of weight training -- and as I said he's on to something. When I'm doing my job right, I'm trying to help people see what that might be.

More on all this to come...


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