On summer Saturdays it was grass gymnastics—
routines on pretend apparatus,
flips without a spring floor.
It hurt pounding prepubescent ankles and wrists
into unforgiving dirt without plushy mat cushion,
but this was the sweet spot between character and penance,
and there was instinct even then to focus training there.
I had makeshift drills:
dive-roll over lawn chairs or table-topped sisters,
cartwheel over jump ropes held a few feet off the ground.
But it was hard to get amplitude,
as the judges would call it.
I couldn’t elevate off backyard soil.
Coaches told me “mind over matter,” so I pretended
my sore foot made me Kerri Strug
and the wind-waving skin on our corner birch
was the encouraging hand of a Karolyi.
I told myself just one spotless handspring
and you’ll wear the laurels like Carly in Athens.
But I stayed heavy and clumsy until I abandoned my Olympians
and refigured myself as a Jesse White Tumbler.
I’d adjust my white suspenders on an all red outfit,
lug thin panel mats into the center lane of a stopped parade.
I’d run through warm-up sequences with my teammates
and give no thought to form.
Our handstands were bent-kneed and arch-backed,
no shoulder stretch or tucked-in chin.
But when it came time for the difficult skills,
we erupted without effort.
Saltos suspended for three mississippis;
four-trick passes stretched to six or seven.
Unlike the chalk-covered leotard-wearer
who gets height with hard arm swings toward the rafters,
with grimaces and repetitions,
with tight, hollow-bodied, upward shoves,
we lift simply from the chest.
We initiate flips with our sternums,
which cannot squeeze or strain.
We will our centers into the sky with inevitable velocity—
aortas magnetized to the tops of skyscrapers,
ribcages buoyed on Chicago smog.
And with all that energy concentrated at the heart,
our faces have no choice but to stay calm,
our limbs no choice but to swing light.
We float easy above our families and futures,
suspend over dirty cement.
And when we land we’re not judged but applauded
by kids on the curb with sticky hands
and melted chocolate on their shirts
and not even a faint awareness
of deduction or injury.