At the Gym by Brandi Sharmek is a poem from Periphery 55. The poem can be found in our archives as well as under the story of the week tab. The Periphery Blog is a blog about writing, narrative, art, and everything in between.
A few years ago I worked for the recreational staff in the gyms here at Drake. It was a strange job just sitting in the gym, unable to spot or help the students. I was just there to watch, to keep the peace. When I talk to others who have, or still do sit inside weight rooms and try not to make too much eye contact with the patrons, they always mention the same couple of things. They mention the fake movement, the furious cycling to nowhere, the fake space of full wall of mirrors, and the tiny interactions that can color an entire day. When I read At the Gym by Brandi Sharmek, it took me right back to those moments. Nothing I have read has so perfectly captured the feeling of spending a lot of time inside a gym. I want to look at how Sharmek uses details to create a larger world and work far beyond their descriptive quality.
The most interesting aspect of At the Gym is the timing of the piece. Anyone who has been bored at a job can speak to how time ebbs and flows while there. Single moments can stand out for days while hours slide by unnoticed. The reason the timing works so well in this piece, is that the poem comes off as over a long period of time. These observations don’t come from a single day, nor a single place. Descriptions of the track, basketball court, and weight room all run together. Comments like, “Watch as he circles around us to the tock-tick of a counter-clockwise Tuesday,” and, “Read the sign: Monday, clockwise. Talk in circles, observe the showcase below,” speak to the extended timeline of the poem. These observations come from a lot of time spent within the gym, not a single day or place. The power of this timing is that the observations come off as exemplary of a larger experience. Because every line paints a different picture, we as readers know they all aren’t happening one after the other, they are simply collections of observations across the time the speaker has been working there. Put together these specific examples paint a much larger picture than a dude staring from behind the desk, and wannabes storming the court. Each example is exemplary of many similar interactions and thereby the gym as a whole. At the Gym uses specific details to be descriptive across a longer period of time and a broader experience than is what is shown. That technique is a wonderfully accurate way to show and describe a boring job.
Specific details work to reflect back onto the speaker. It is easy to miss the complete lack to action within At the Gym. Every line is an observation or fantasy, never an action on the part of the speaker. Part of the reason the lack of action is easy to miss is that it is so varied. Sharmek does an incredible job of using every sense to creation the world of the gym. I hear the weights chatter, I smell the antiseptic, and I see all six screens displaying the same image. Every line isn’t another patron, nor image, but a switch between senses. What is so interesting about all of these observations is that they are just that: observations. The speaker, without ever saying anything about themselves is someone who spends a great deal of time observing the gym. They are not the one pumping iron or running miles, merely observing. More than that, through their voice we understand that observation isn’t spiteful nor sardonic, merely perceptive and above all bored. Sprinkled into that perception, are fantasies: “Imagine an elephant elevated on an elliptical,” ponders the speaker. These thoughts are interspersed with observations of the gym, telling of a wandering mind. The specific observations not only work to build the world of the gym, but characterize the speaker.
Why then are specific examples so important? It is kind of a strange question to ask. It is the difference in saying the Mr. Rochester is ugly, or that he,
Had a dark face, with stern features and a heavy brow; his eyes and gathered eyebrows looked ireful and thwarted just now; he was past youth, but has not reached middle aged […] Had he been a handsome, heroic-looking gentleman, I should have not dared to stand thus questioning him against his will (Bronte 114)
It is the difference in saying that Gloria Gilbert compulsively eats candy, or that there is a specific brand of gum drop that she simply must have or she will pout and throw a fit. We live our lives through specifics, not generalities, and when it comes to describing a place or person, those specifics define them. When I think of my friends and family what stands out to me isn’t broad impressions, but details about the way they speak or habitual actions that paint that larger picture. When I think of the gym, it isn’t of the machines, but the tick-tock of clocks and smell of antiseptic. Sharmek could have easily told us about the gym, but through details, she is able to show us the space.