My gym, a gutted former DMV,
is no frills: a few lifting platforms, rowers,
chin-up bars, but no—it seems the powers
that be think it’s extravagant—AC
What else to do, then, when it’s hot as hell
and humid—hell’s, I think, is no dry heat—
but open the garage bay door and let
the cooler air in, letting in as well
the occasional scrap of newspaper, the odd
lottery ticket, lots of dust—twice,
at least that I’ve seen, monarch butterflies,
and here, today, as from the hand of God,
swift and straight as the proverbial arrow,
passer domesticus, or the house sparrow,
which after flying the gym’s entire length
dips to avoid the plate glass window just
in time and crash lands in a chalk bucket,
wherein it makes an intermittent racket,
sending up in the process clouds of dust
that gradually thin as it exhausts its strength.
We place it outside in the open air.
Then it’s back to the workout of the day—
Death by Front-Squats—an imposing name
for what when all is said and done’s a game.
When we check back the bird has flown away,
or is in any case no longer there.
It’s rare around here that you see a cat:
The junkyard dog next door has seen to that.
It seems to me this present life, oh king,
compared to all the time we cannot see
is like a sparrow’s swift flight through a hall
where you are seated, feasting with your men
around a fire of a winter’s night:
the wind roars, snow and rain come down outside.
Flying in one door then out another
the sparrow will be safe from the foul weather
for the brief interval it is inside
but in an instant it is gone from sight
into the snow and darkness once again.
The longest human life is brief withal.
As to what comes before or after, we
cannot, with certitude, know anything.
Say that royal counselor went to my gym.
(Having been resurrected, we’ll assume,
or just being one of those old guys to whom
time has been more than usually generous—
fit as a fiddle at 1,000+!)
What would the sparrow’s plight have said to him?
For me, at least, it veered so close to being
a parody of his divinely apt
likeness that, in no time, I was seeing
the plastic bucket where the bird was trapped
as, say, a symbol of the snares inherent
in earthly life, the soul’s temptation to
(forgive me) throw itself into apparent
goods and so doing lose sight of the True.
Which is just silly. If the bucket means
something, shouldn’t, too, the rowing machines,
the pull-up bars, the barbells, the weight stations?
Of what exactly are they illustrations?
And what kind of theology’s implied
by bird and bucket being borne outside
through the garage bay door, the hapless sparrow
having spectacularly missed the narrow-
er, albeit human-sized door opposite?
With metaphors, you must know when to quit.
Though one could make the case that, all in all,
the world is less a kingly dining hall
than a bare bones gymnasium that is either
too hot or cold, depending on the weather.
My gym? It is. I pay a monthly fee
and come in three times a week, or try to, so
yes, this is my gym, all right, although
saying so still sounds a bit strange to me.
My first real workout, ever, was the free
session I came to here a year ago.
Forty-one years old, I didn’t know
a barbell from a dumbbell. Literally.
Now: pull-ups, kipping pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups,
dead lifts, front-squats, presses, clean-and-jerks,
kettlebell swings and presses, Turkish get-ups . . .
Now I can list off all the exercises.
Friends put this late conversion down, their smirks
tell me, to an early mid-life crisis.
Driving across the Tobin a year ago
and glancing off and down into thin air
I found myself considering places where
the fence that runs along the bridge is low,
places where it would be a simple matter,
and safe enough, to just pull over, stop,
get out, climb six or seven feet, then drop
the several hundred feet down to the water.
For years I had been wishing I could die.
Not being a self-starter, I’d done nothing
about it, except wallow in self-loathing.
Seeing my chance that day, though, I recoiled,
saved by the same inertia that had spoiled
my life so far, maybe, or maybe I . . .
I found myself in here the following week
(here, dive though it is, because I knew
the trainer) out of breath, my clothes soaked through,
not so much trying to work on my physique,
as save my skin. Talk therapy, religion,
exercise be what finally put to flight
these dark thoughts? Ah, but these dark thoughts are legion . . .
Well done, Lord, casting demons out, but why
let them, however briefly, hang around?
Why on earth not send them all straight back
Forgive me: I identify
with the recovering demoniac
less than with the pigs those demons drowned.
Stretches, a shower. Then to the dentist’s, where,
unable to find anything to read
out in the waiting room, I sit and stare
off into space: where men sit drinking mead
still, round a fire in that parable
recorded by the Venerable Bede,
pausing to watch the passage through their hall
of a quick sparrow. And I see the sparrow
my sister and I saved when we were small:
how our indulgent father built a narrow
wood and wire hospice for it, how we fed
and gave it water. And our childish sorrow
when we woke up next day and found it dead.
Childish, but no more than it merited.
Father Rolando always loved the sight
of Boston from the Tobin bridge at night.
It looked like a whole galaxy brought down
to earth and, seeing the towers of his town
suspended there, illuminated, made
him proud to be a human being, he said,
proud of our vision and determination.
Then God and the army had seen fit to station
him in the desert in the first Gulf War,
and out in the Arabian night sky, far
from the polluting lights of any city,
he found his image of infinity.
Lent, he concluded, is a time set apart
to go into the desert of the heart.
As he installs a temporary crown—
I cracked the tooth by grinding in my sleep—
I grip the chair lightly and try to keep
my attention elsewhere. Read from the top down
three photos in a frame on the wall facing
show a 300+ lb. tuna chasing
a bluefish that in each frame leaps and torques
its body in midair in hopes of losing
its hunter, which in each is clearly closing.
The drill whines. He whistles as he works.
Little fish, you would never, would you, simply
give up and fall back to the water, limply?
The mindless, muscled answer that you give
is one that bears repeating: Live. Live. Live.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 9, on page 41
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com