Poetry: Steven Gehrke’s “Sisyphus by Choice, 1985”

////Poetry: Steven Gehrke’s “Sisyphus by Choice, 1985”

Steven 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


“The Caucasus: Elbrus” by Alena Mudrenok

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.


About the writer:
Steve Gehrke has published three books of poetry, most recently Michelangelo’s Seizure, which was selected for the National Poetry Series. His awards include an NEA, a Pushcart, and a Lannan Literary Residency. He teaches at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Image: “The Caucasus: Elbrus” by Alena Mudrenok, an artist from Kiev, Ukraine. Soft pastels on paper. 21 x 29.7 cm. 2017. By permission.






By | 2018-12-04T13:23:59+00:00 December 4th, 2018|LITERARY ARTS, Narrative, Poetry|