Cultivating Mass

Graham Barnhart

Let the peaceful young men work 
their bis and tris.    

                     Let’s not begrudge 
them their beach muscle. 

This is not bitterness. Please, let them 
          never imagine their Clean and Press 

                                 is a casualty raised 
up and over 
            a Humvee’s up-armor. 

Let them never know a body 
            weighs more unconscious 

                                 or consider that barbells are built 
to be lifted, our bodies 
                                 to lie down.  


            Today I can deadlift four-oh-five.
When I can move four-ten  

that will not stop a bullet 
                   the overpressure of a bomb 

flooding some tightened space, 
never mind 
                              the shrapnel and heat careening 
through that rapid bloat


But if lifting is not a prayer 
            why do my knees hurt?

                     Why lunge genuflections 
in fifty-yard intervals
            if not to make less fragile these legs 

                     I beg to keep? 
If the consecration of chalk buckets
            is not a blessing 

            then the measured 
tearing down of my tissue, the shallow  

scarring of its muscle,
                     is not teaching this body reverence 

to whatever 
            is in it that tells it—cohere

                     But I say this is faith, 
I am learning 
            to tighten myself together

            and knowing 
the little good it will do. 

Let the peaceful young men believe
            for awhile longer
                     anything otherwise. 

Graham Barnhart served as a Special Forces medic in Iraq and Afghanistan and is currently pursuing an MFA at Ohio State University. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Beloit Poetry JournalThe Gettysburg ReviewGulf CoastThe Sewanee Review, and others. He was recently named the recipient of the 2015 Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal.