Ellen McGrath Smith


We were lined up and moving, the bodies embraced
by machines set to measure our calories burned,
biologies earned, while we passively made ourselves
active. The golden girl on the elliptical fixing
her hair in a cross-cut of ice-cold efficiency,
man beside her; she was out of his league
but he looked sideways anyway, sometimes.
I'm the old one, their mom's age, wearing headphones
and a Walkman, adding resistance in five-minute increments,
keeping the incline the same, trying to settle my gaze on
a tear in the carpet, near the feet of a cluster of guys
by the weights, desultorily sitting and standing around
the way guys by the weights often do, like workers
in construction waiting around for materials,
my uncles in the print room of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
When a machine broke down, they had to wait—union rules—
for someone from another union to come in and fix it.
Hours, sometimes, would pass that way, and they would still
receive their pay, and the news would still be waiting
on the front porch when the city woke.


I sometimes think of my body
               in later editions,
whimpering behind a flimsy
               dustjacket. I don't want
to protect it; I want to run it
               through a brutal regimen
of drills until it drops.
               There was a girl
at the gym who was a candle,
a girl who was only the stump
of a candle, a boy with a cowlick
a mouse could go surfing on.
What am I to them?
                              Without upkeep,
splay. Without prayer, vanity
                              and bitterness.
Extra-firm tofu.
An hour-long bath.


This emeritus type comes into the campus gym and works out
in dress clothes like you'd see in an office the day JFK was killed.

In the days before manic AC,
when one really did roll up one's sleeves to work.
He steps onto the stairclimber,
                                                                                the more familiar
Ionian mode.


There is a vestigial portion of my brain, a region
the size of a thumb, a cat's paw,
that gets competitive.                              Look, I think,
                              I'm going as fast
as that girl in her twenties.
                                                            Even as I think it,
I label it "desperate."

There was a package delivered five decades ago.
               I've been opening it ever since.
Sometimes I tear at it, sometimes I prod.    WHAT IS THE WOD?


Two months before my father died of cancer,
I gave him a pedometer and a track jacket for Christmas.
He'd been gearing up for some big fitness initiative,
cutting back on fats, etcetera. At the end, the doctor said
he kept on living in spite of the morphine and legion
malignancies because of his strong, strong heart.


A naked woman my age is a total nightmare.
                     (Frederick Seidel, "Broadway Melody")

Traditional renditions of getting older
bore me. I know this is vanity,
know I will die. It pissed me off
to read that Rolling Stone interview
with Jack Nicholson
in which he joked about
his always getting laid
and made a metaphor—
crêpe-paper skin—about the older women
he deigns to fuck (the ones his age),
which brought to mind the line
from that Frederick Seidel poem.
Fuck them both, I think,
as my legs pump elliptically
today in the gym. Fuck them both,
and add resistance every five.


For a time in my twenties, I took in 600 calories
a day, wanting an uncomplicated body.
Even the cheapest clothes fit me.
I wanted my former professor to love me.
Bending over to check my bath one night,
I noticed, with horror, how my breasts—
normally nearly absent—hung straight down
like stringy figs. One takes these revelations
differently at 23 than when one's just turned 50.
My body is an assemblage of earth, air, and water.
Also, it's a jar, a lantern, meat that will certainly
spoil. Mode of transportation, abbreviation
of some greater thing nobody can spell out.

Ellen McGrath Smith teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Her poetry has appeared in The New York Times, The American Poetry Review, Talking Writing, Los Angeles Review, and other journals and anthologies. Books include Scatter, Feed (Seven Kitchens 2014) and Nobody's Jackknife (West End Press 2015).

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