“At the Gym” by Mark Doty
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In the poem “At the Gym” Mark Doty is giving a description of a person at the gym that is about to lift weights. The description uses terms that can be commonly used in describing the gym environment to give a deeper meaning to the life that we lead as human beings. The metaphors that are used to relay the message are a salt-stain spot, the vinyl bench, the weights being lifted, and the actual gym. Taking a closer look at the meaning of the poem can provide insight on our own life as to why we lead the life we lead. What is the true meaning on why we do things? Do we do things to be righteous or unselfish? Or is it that we do things to prove arrogance and selfishness? I believe the author, Mark Doty, is asking the simple question “Why is it that you live the way you do and what legacy will you leave behind? Imagine yourself at the gym, everyone there with the same objective, to improve the way they look. This can be thought of in one simple word, vanity. Mark Doty used metaphors to give this concept a deeper meaning.
As we prepare to start our workout, we look at the vinyl bench and notice a “salt-stained spot” (1). This salt-stain is dried up sweat left from the person that used the bench before us. It symbolizes the struggle and work that was put in by the previous users and soon to be added by you. Why were these people working so hard and why am I getting ready to do the same? The next passage says “lay down their heads, back to the bench, and hoist nothing that need be lifted” (3-6). This obviously is talking about lifting the weights, metaphorically speaking, is talking about completing unnecessary tasks. The tasks are burdens that are brought on by our selves not once, but over and over again expressed in gym terms as “more reps, more weight” (8-9). The action of lifting the weights can be seen as burdens that we as humans must overcome and put forth strenuous effort to pursue our goals. The vinyl bench represents two purposes; it is our support system and our life imprint. Before we lift the weights we notice the salt-stain left by other people.
This is their imprint that they have left behind, and it is this imprint where we put our faith and belief that we can achieve the same. We use this imprint of another person not as our physical support but as our mental and emotional support. We prepare, sit, press the weight, and sweat. From our efforts, the sweat soaks our clothing causing “shroud-stains’ that are soaked into the cloth of the bench for everyone around us to see (12-13). This seems to be a painful effort for most to accomplish what everyone else is hoping to acquire. We get up hot with sweat consuming us physically releasing heat into the atmosphere surrounding us (20-23). But what is the heat and what does it represent? It can be defined as our ego and the false accomplishments that we are blinded with. It does not have meaning or purpose other than wallowing about our self centered intentions as if they were good deeds. We get up with an understanding that what we have done was noble and that it will be remembered by everyone.
When in actuality everything that we just worked for did not need to be done and was in fact done in vain. Vanity overcomes us, even though we know it is wrong and selfish, we go to a familiar place were we are with others that are just like us. This is our safe house where no one will place judgment on our own lifestyles and our choices we make in life. This provides encouragement to us to do what we want and not on what needs to be done. “Though there’s something more tender, beneath our vanity, (28-29). Vanity is used to express the vain pursuit of the perfect physique that we seek.
The gym is a metaphor for something that is much broader that just a building with treadmills, equipment, and people. It represents the world we live in and the things that we can be influenced by. The gym can also be seen as our moral position as human beings wiles the sweat represents the pain and agony There is nothing wrong with having the desire to be remembered or wanting to leave a legacy behind. Mark Doty uses the word “stain” twice to describe what imprint we have left and what imprint we will leave. Doty is asking us to live a life that is worth living and do the things that have meaning and purpose.