I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
Subscribe and Save up to 55%
In the 1970s a group of poets called the Actualists
loaded typewriters with paper-towel rolls,
then sat in the middle of a busy intersection
on the longest day of the year, typing
from sunrise to sunset. They wrapped a building
in butcher paper and gave pens to passersby.
The most famous Actualist went on a late-night
television talk show and wrote a poem
on the body of his girlfriend. “This is not poetry,”
some people said. The Actualists smiled, then
shrugged their shoulders and said, “Be actual.”
Years later I’m at a friend’s house. He’s dying,
and we’re watching television. A handsome
actor comes on, and my friend says, “Do you think
he could love a man who spends all day in bed?”
“You were up just yesterday,” I remind him.
“To take a shit,” he says. “And I couldn’t even do that.”
For the last two months he’s been writing
on the walls with a thick black marking pen.
He’ll get a burst of energy and drag himself
from room to room. When I come over
he asks me to read the day’s efforts aloud:
“Religion must include not only longing
and need but anger.” That’s true, I say.
“Oh, God,” he groans, “how could I be so boring?”
Now I’m pissed at him and, almost shouting, say,
“It’s not boring. Even if it’s crap, boring’s not the issue.”
He smiles, apparently happy to have a little phony drama
in place of the strangely less-compelling real one
in which he plays the tragic leading man.
I read on: “Traveling between two worlds,
I find I am mute in both.” “Can we love
what isn’t wounded? Can we love what is?”
“Name three things that are essential to life.”
And finally, “What’s the difference between
the day before the diagnosis and the day after?”
The writing starts at the floor and climbs
the walls. “I wasn’t thinking ahead,” he says.
“I’d lie there and write, and now I’ve filled
the low parts so that if I want to write more,
I have to sit up. After that, I’ll have to stand up.
I can’t stand up. If I’d started at the ceiling,
I could have worked my way down as I got sicker.”
“Don’t worry,” I say. “We’ll get a foam pad
and put it on a scaffold. We can crank you up
so you can write as high as you want.”
“To heaven?” he wonders. “Yes, to heaven.”
One night I couldn’t sleep. I was lying in bed
thinking how short life is and what is the best thing
to do with it. I’d never mention this to my friend,
who has grown increasingly less patient with banality.
I got up and walked around the house, looking
at my wordless walls. I turned on the television,
and there was a cable rerun of that talk show,
the one where the man wrote poems
on his girlfriend’s body. “Oh, my God,”
I said to the empty room, and the host,
speaking happily from twenty-five years
in the past, said, “Stay right where you are.
We’ll be back in a minute with more
from the Actualists.” Then he winked,
a sarcastic little wink to make fun of his guest
and to invite the viewers to make fun, too,
and he said, “Remember, be actual.”