In January 1813, Goethe wrote to a friend that, as a poet and artist, he was a polytheist; as a natural scientist, he was a pantheist; and as a moral man, he was a Christian. No wonder, then, that in his shorter poems, as in Faust, he could not devote himself to a single style or tone. The “Olympian” remained a pagan in this regard and never accepted a One True Form. Wordsworth, in his last decades, seemed to believe there is no poem but the sonnet. Dante spent much of his career proliferating tercets; Spenser found his stanza and stuck to it; Rumi’s Masnavi is couplets all the way down. Some poets get excellent results repeating themselves. Others get restless.
I am very much in Goethe’s camp, but my compulsion to mix things up goes hand in hand with the compulsion to make exceptions to my own rules. It is in my poetic nature to (on occasion) go against my poetic nature. The verse essay I published immediately before this one was an “Essay on Repetition.” In most cases, that would have been a one-off. Yet the poem’s theme challenged me to essay a repetition. This is it: Another verse essay on repetition, repetition of a kind not mentioned in the first verse essay, though I perform it almost daily.
The heroic couplet has the bipartite structure of a weight room repetition. The second rhyme sets down what the first rhyme lifts; the tension in the line is the tension in the tendon. This essay on (pumping) iron, like its twin on repetition, has a personal trainer in Alexander Pope — who stood only 4 feet 6 inches tall, wore a canvas back brace for scoliosis, but maxed out at a positively beastly 634 couplets in his “Essay on Man.” I lift way less than Coach Alex, as you can see — but as the Essay itself explains, in lifting as in writing as in life, it’s best not to compare.
No manhood ceremonies now, no rite
Of passage that exiled a boy all night
In piss-dank woods until he trudged home with
A steaming kill, no transformation myth —
Only the intractable fact of weight,
The non-negotiability of plate
And plate: That is the door boys push against,
Grimacing through to the other side as men.
I walked my twin sons downstairs to the rack
Of twinned dumbbells in waiting rows, the stack
Of plates, the trap bar, wrist straps, lifting gloves,
The pull-up bar I swore they’d learn to love.
You would have thought I was a grand inquisitor
Giving a guided tour to scare my visitors
With iron implements of coming torture
The way they looked at me. This was the border
At boyhood’s end where brotherhood began.
They muttered — “Dad’s whole ‘time to be a man’
Thing” — feigned a headache, shuffled, slouched their shoulders,
Recalled assignments in their homework folders …
When ruses and excuses failed to get them
Out of it, to my shock, they cried. I let them;
Then made them start. Can’t curl 5’s? Try 3’s.
Can’t do a pushup? Do one on your knees.
I didn’t have them deadlift. But an air squat?
So long as you can stand up, you can bear that.
I preached no coach’s sermon, though I could
Have given them a Gita on the good
That lifting does the mind. You think you train
Your body; what you’re training is your brain
To see reality for what it is.
The weights make no exceptions. They persist
In stubborn, Himalayan immobility.
The only thing that changes: Your ability
To lift them. There’s no special pleading with them,
No way to game the system. It’s the system —
More weight, more sets — that is your only shot.
You bring this up, you set this down. Or not.
That’s what I might have told them, if I thought
It helped. But talking deadlifts never got
A bar to jump up off the floor. You fold
The hinges nature fit you with to hold
That weight like an idea in your mind.
I made them start. We three are three of a kind:
I was a skinny brown boy, too, my upper
Lip fuzzy, rotli daal bhaat shaak for supper,
Gujarati name with an Ohio accent,
My music Black, my best friends Anglo-Saxon:
A khichdi kid. (It shows in my aesthetics
To this day.) Good at math but not athletics,
I ate no chicken but had chicken legs.
I wasn’t someone anyone would peg
As future meathead, daily at the gym.
I’ve shown my twins the photographs — I’m them.
It’s way back then the fanatic was born:
Religion, literature, and fitness. Scorn
Is healthy in a modest, tonic dose.
If I had been well-liked, and if my nose
Had been a little shorter, I’d have written prose
And sold my debut thriller for a stellar sum
And sunbathed ever after in bestsellerdom.
That first year out of high school, I escaped
My body, or I tried to. I reshaped
What wasn’t there to start with, potter’s hands
Encircling empty space. So I began
To eat. The herbivore grew new, sharp teeth.
This Hindu savaged tuna, deli meat,
The Brahma bulls forbidden my forebears,
Those Texas Roadhouse steaks I asked for rare
And, to be honest, didn’t even care for.
The workouts worked — now I had something there for
My will to harden into muscle. I got bigger,
But diligence can tweak, it can’t transfigure,
Revising, reenvisioning a form,
My lines imperfect from twiggy forearm
To sprain-prone ankle, slender but not svelte …
No bookshelf abs, no teardrop-tapered delts
With body fat at less than 10 percent,
No calves with brickbats sewn beneath the skin,
No gymnast’s thighs, no varsity swimmer’s back
Hairless as Hellenistic marble, waxed
And flaring upside-down-triangle lats:
My lineage denied me lines like that.
I saw it in the photorealist mirror
Behind the power cage: Some sculptures here
Had started out at twice my strength and size.
I’ll never be half as built as half these guys!
No matter how much sweat the treadmill cost me,
I never would escape the shape that boxed me.
Though one guy’s warm-up benched my one-rep max,
I worked out anyway, at peace with facts.
The weight room taught me never to compare:
We’re not created equal, nothing’s fair,
And protein-crazed, ascetic antics don’t
Outweigh genetics in who will or won’t
Deadlift eight hundred pounds and, trembling, stand,
Then drop and step clear, hand unwrapping hand.
A daydream works out in the world once you
Redream it as a list of things to do:
These many sets, these many repetitions.
In poetry alone, I keep ambitions
Properly foolish. You can see how daft
In these impromptu lines — dashed off, one draft —
I jot them as Erato whispers them to me,
Each couplet’s music using muscle memory.
Ink’s a libation poured before a God, the
Idealized, imaginary body
Of work, but so is sweat, that pours from me
Into my body heat like Vedic ghee.
My agony is Agni. I’m a rishi
As ancient as my ancestors could wish me,
My sacred mandala the power cage,
And ink — svaha — an offering to the page.
I fast, I test my joints with yogic stress,
I seek, through verse, a higher consciousness,
My poems, chants — divinely ordered words
Not meant for men — I hope, divinely heard.
Which is to say, I knew at age 19
The torso I worked on would stay unseen
Save by the one (now wife) I love. The same
Is true of every book that bears my name.
I don’t work out or write for a stranger’s eyes;
Ami’s, and Saraswati’s — theirs, I prize.
Just as I strive to outwrite my last work
(I don’t write, now, with one eye on the Master)
The poem’s “I” is someone to compete with.
I strive to beat the man I share my seat with
When living, lifting, writing. Self-revision,
Each rhyme a rep, more weight and more ambition
Will grow my karma as I grow my work,
From strength to strength, each birth a clean and jerk.
As Dante wandered, Rumi strummed and whirled:
Soul in the poet, poet in the world,
The Secret anchors all in mystic movement.
To be, you have to do. There is no proving
Your axiomatic maximum except —
Rep after rep after self-transcending rep —
By reaching for your inner asymptote.
You’re lifted, higher than you ever hoped.
The weight of Being pushes through you.
You serve a sheikh. Your body is your guru.
There’s one right way with any ritual action:
Strict form is everything. Don’t round your back, son!
Slow down, look out for any sudden pains,
Don’t overdo it, son, don’t rush your gains.
I give pointers, not philosophical points
Because philosophy won’t keep their joints
From twinges, aches, or one conclusive pop that
Means I caught flawed form too late to stop it.
Now breathe out slowly as you push, I say,
As if I’m coaching at a birth. And they
Are birthing, in a way, themselves. Each strains
A chrysalis that is what it contains —
A teen, a man. Feet shoulder width apart,
I say. Get on that air bike, work your heart!
I made them start, and that was all it took
To bait the line and get them on the hook.
Within a week, I found them both downstairs in
The thick of leg day. Nubbins of keratin
Studded their palms, proud calluses they showed
Each other, battle scars. They upped their loads,
Riding the upsweep of an S-shaped graph,
That bright exhilaration of the grasp
And heave, their newfound superpower
Pushing the workout to a second hour.
Now it was their thing, something that they loved.
They fit their hands into my workout gloves.
I saw them pausing at the mirror, flexing,
Turning their torsos in the light and checking
Which angles flattered. Eggsized biceps, taut
And small, that cordlike vein-bulge — Shit, I thought,
I’ve got to keep from preaching at the boys
But out my sermon came. I had no choice.
“The incline press, dead lift, bent-over row —
In time, my boys, you’re certain to plateau.
Lifting rewards you most when you’re beginning.
The gains spill in your lap like jackpot winnings
Out of a slot machine — you pull the lever
And figure you will win like this forever.
Sure, check yourself out, vanity comes first to the
Appraising gaze — but next comes insecurity,
And either one’s a sickness of the psyche
That outweighs any good from lifting, hiking,
Lap swimming, yoga. Boys, it’s all unhealthy
If you’re just doing it to stage a selfie.
Never compare yourself to anybody,
Not Daddy, not your twin. You let your body
One month ago be what you juxtapose
The mirror with, and whether progress shows
Or slows or goes the opposite direction,
Look with detachment at your own reflection.
Just cells! Short-lived as pixels on a screen.
Your being is distinct from being seen.”
And yes, in case you’re wondering, at the time
I said exactly those words, rhyme for rhyme.
A bit of moralizing, yes, but I’m their father;
If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t bother.
A little self-aggrandizement, ego-
Dilation, drove me, too, to grow, to go
Heavy, to make myself get bigger. Vanity’s
One engine; old age subs it out with sanity.
You’ll never read it in a fitness book,
But what begins with I want girls to look
Here ends with I want Time to look away.
I live that shift in motive nowadays.
In college, schools of tuna found a grave in
My belly. Now, I fast. I feel no craving
For meat. For twelve years now and counting, I
Have werewolfed down no creature with an eye.
These hours on the air bike, dripping sweat,
I flee in place, as in a nightmare, death.
Death, disease, age, pain: The Buddha’s list
Holds true, and bare palms iron-crosshatch-kissed
Can’t push that deathweight off the chest, can’t power
Through failure to a single extra hour.
With death, there’s no negotiating. Age,
Disease, and pain are willing to engage.
You cut a deal with pain, court soreness, risk
The agony of herniated disc
Or torn rotator cuff, and pain delays
Disease and age. There aren’t any stays
Of execution. Every body blinks
And sees again through different eyes, and thinks
Again with ganglia, or denser neural thickets,
Our bodies like so many shredded tickets
Dropped as we go one station to the next,
The fingerprint an overwritten text
That says the same thing in a changeling tongue,
Lifesbreath translated, selfsame, to new lungs.
You build a body, oeuvre, tower, culture
Aware that each one is an ice sculpture
That melts to steam beneath the chisel’s futile
Pursuit of a beautiful, brief, inutile
Perfection. Time is relative. The soreness
After a workout makes us lighter, soars us
Outside the body’s atmosphere. Up there,
The clocks are lazier. Your floating hair
Stops going white, the way the astronaut
Rocketing at light speed in Einstein’s thought
Experiment returns to find the earth
Has gotten older. Each clockwork rebirth
Hisses and deadlifts karma off the floor.
Death is a rest before we load up more
Because there is a peak, and that peak past,
The muscle bellies shrink. It happens fast —
“Before and After” photos always show
The gains, but no one takes them of their slow
Shrivel — the turkey-wattle triceps-dangle,
Sandpaper neck skin, ortho-booted ankle,
Small-scale humiliation of the pin
Slid out, moved up two plates, then slid back in.
I know this strength was never meant to last —
Who curls the same dumbbells at 80 as
He does at 18? This adrenaline
That I’m addicted to, this game I win
Against myself, it starts up when it ends,
And true, I’ve got now, in my twins, two friends
I get to work out with, advise, and spot,
But what perplexes me is how they got
So tall so soon, I mean I wanted this —
This manhood rite, the Wrapping of the Wrists —
But I’ve uncorked some tricksy time-lapse voodoo.
They’ve shot up, broadened, baritones now … Who knew
They’d step into the hex bar like flyweights
Into the ring and step out nine, no, eight
Bells later in a whole new weight class? Giggling
Thumb wars leave my spry stub wriggling
Below a hairy bludgeon. Pinned — in seconds!
Now I am Time but God I never reckoned
On this acceleration of their boyhood
Destroying worlds like cradles made of plywood,
Sandboxes full of ashes, ancient phones.
Our hands align. They just have bigger bones.
But (one twin tucked in either armpit) I
Could keep their hands from poking their own eyes,
Threading their tiny wrists among my fingers;
They’d drift off right away. I should have lingered
When setting down that weight. A lullaby —
I never wrote them one — why didn’t I?
Those topsy-turvy hours parents keep …
I felt so grateful they had gone to sleep
I slept, I sleepwalked past them year by year,
And now they’re men, and only visit here,
My basement setup quaint, with a low ceiling,
Their college fitness-palace more appealing,
Two darkhaired giants standing at the head
Of Daddy’s flat bench, nodding, Go ahead,
Just breathe out, Dad, you’ve got this, so I push
The weight, stall; grimace; feel my whole head flush —
Until two fingers cradling the bar
Remind me who I am, and who they are,
My body doubles, in whom I live again,
My dumbbell nebula, my babies, men.