Poem Ending and Beginning on Lines by Larry Levis
Because you haven’t praised anything in months,
and because iron, because two ten-pound plates—
when pressed to six wheels and late sets—are enough
to drive better men to dust, and because the young bucks
curling near the mirror have paused their pretty work
to watch your old ass snatch from the bench’s
buckling uprights all three hundred and thirty-five
goddam pounds, you summon the saint of iron,
the blacksmith in palm skirt fisting his machetes,
to give you just a little bit of what you need to bring it
down, to bang it up, just once. Just this once.
—Ago, Baba Mi. Ogun Owanile O, Ogun, Cobu Cobu.
Of course, the young bucks chuckle at this ooga-booga
babble, this strange ritual gibberish of an old-timer,
obviously—in the parlance of the place—dead set
to fuck his self up. But you break the weight, you do.
And the room falls quiet save the quiver and clang
of iron on iron, the few slim seconds it takes to turn
back time. Lift off, and you’re a young man in an old city.
No beard, no gray. Lift again, and Parliament is pulsing
from a ghetto blaster perched on a pair of milk crates
in a neighbor’s yellow yard, your sixteen-year-old self
is writhing under another bar, what feels like two tons
crushing you dead, and Robert Caldwell’s glaring
from behind the bench, yelling for you to drive it all up.
Robert Caldwell, barrel-chested, chiseled, and damn
near three hundred pounds, who pushed a pallet jack
for twelve-hour shifts, after twenty-something years
stretched across San Quentin, Soledad, and Folsom;
Robert Caldwell, the triple O.G., who once threatened
his boss with a box-cutter for wolfing loud, or holding
eye contact a little too long, has for reasons unknown
chosen you for his pet project, promising to forge you
into something unbreakable. Said by summer’s end,
you, too, will have grown men flinching when you flex,
and the women—oh, the women—will make disappear
all the deep deep ache a man inflicts on himself. Or,
rather, all the pain Robert Caldwell will inflict on you.
For make no mistake, this will be a summer that hurts.
Deadlifts, box squats, power cleans, and curls.
The egg yolks’ nasty, the slither down your throat.
Drop sets, pyramids, twenty-ones, and cheats. The day
you learned how Robert Caldwell found his father
dead. Days dead the day before, a stolen Desert Eagle
spent and sprawled near what once was a face.
Robert Caldwell drops this on you hard between sets,
but doesn’t pause to break down sobbing. Push, nigga.
Push, says Robert Caldwell. Pain is weakness leaving.
Push, nigga. Push. Become something unbreakable.
Robert Caldwell doesn’t break or take a day to mourn,
or ring your phone late night to chat about regret,
or counsel you to love better than you’ve been.
He does what any good ironworker does. He works.
And he works you. All summer long. Sets and reps
and pressure and flame and all the requisite ache.
You don’t break, exactly, but come close to buckling.
That summer, and summers since. So much burn,
so much weight. So much. You’ll leave three women,
the rest will leave you first. You’ll bury your own father,
lose four friends to gunfire, one to a jailhouse noose.
Your hands will shame you often. But first, this.
O.G. Robert Caldwell, his jigs, blocks, and hammer.
O.G. Robert Caldwell, backlit by the sun. Ogun
Owanile O, Ogun Cobu Cobu. How beautiful this man,
his trust in iron, what it gives us, what it takes.
What it gives again. He yells for you to push, you push.
Robert Caldwell, you think, would have loved this
beat down Brooklyn hole in the wall, its ripped leather
seatbacks, all its stale air. He’d have loved the rusty
dumbbells, the dirt-caked mirror, the young bucks
circling you now, watching and waiting. You stare hard
into that mirror, into your beard and gray. Crow’s feet
and furrows. Thirty-something summers and you’ve become
the triple O.G. Every ache you’ve earned tells you so.
The young bucks clock you as you lay back on the bench,
your hands chalked and finding their grip. Weight,
you think, they don’t have a clue. You break the bar
from its rack, feel it all bearing down. The quiver and heft,
the sudden, overcast quiet of the past tense.
John Murillo, “Poem Ending and Beginning on Lines by Larry Levis” from Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. Copyright © 2020 by John Murillo. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Four Way Books, fourwaybooks.com. All rights reserved.