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


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 Elena Mudrenok (1976-). Soft pastels on paper. 21 X 29.7 cm. 2017. By permission.