When Hillary came down from Everest, he shouted to his mate: "Well, we knocked the bastard off."
When Armstrong set his foot upon the Moon, he paused a moment for the camera and softly spoke into the microphone of his space suit, to Mission Control in Houston, to the waiting media vultures, to the hydra-headed monster behind them, to Congress and Russia and history and slowly, slowly at the speed of light to Alpha Centauri and beyond, his well-rehearsed spontaneous announcement: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."
Poor Neil tried he really did and what he said was true in its way and yet that casual 'we' of Hillary's (unreported for many years) included: his partner Tenzing, yes, and Evans and Bourdillon, and Hunt and Lowe, yes, and all the rest of the '53 expedition, and Mallory and Irvine, yes, and Shipton and Tilman, yes, and Herzog and Lachenal, yes, and Messner and Habeler then in school, yes, and three billion more, yes, and their parents, yes, and their children, yes, and their parents' parents, yes, and their children's children
while that 'mankind' was just enough to leave Buzz Aldrin shattered, cut out, alone, failed, drunk.
What is the opposite of loneliness? The feeling is connected, connected with community.
Brian would not let the train carry its cargo of death no! he made it run over his legs. Helen would not take parole from a system she would not accept no! she chose to be jailed instead. Peter prevented a satellite's launch by chopping it up with an ax no! he paid with two years of his time. Kim could not stand that the homeless were starving no! but giving them food got her busted. Jon decided on his own he would not let the Pintail dock no! and he risked both his boat and his life. Katje left cookies and flowers to show she would not hurt a person no! but she smashed the computer controlling the bombs.
No one asked them, no one forced them, no one told them what to do.
Are they heroes?
We live in circles, many circles, many different sizes we live in a universe, a world, a continent, a society, a group, a family, a head we breathe in our circles, and we give life to them, as they give life to us, even as we try to act on our own.
Other friends yes, I'm in here have picked up praise for what they do, have won applause and cups and silver plates, certificates and generous fingers pointed.
Does that make them winners?
Accomplishment is everywhere, and with it the taint of success.
When Hillary came down to radio range, he learned that he'd been knighted by the Queen and someone else had accepted on his behalf; he couldn't turn it down without a bigger fuss than the one he wanted to avoid. Sir Ed. Oh well.
There is no action without consequence, and no inaction either; what we don't do ripples as far as what we do.
Hillary kept bees at home; Hillary drove across Antarctica; Hillary boated up the Ganges; Hillary worked for Sears in product endorsement; and hit them up to pay for a clinic in Khumjung; Hillary built schools in Solu and Khumbu; Hillary helped to rebuild Thyangboche when the electrical wiring caught fire.
But to the press, and to the world, and to his son, he remained: The Man Who Conquered Everest.
Poetry is personal and if it's good it tells a truth, one truth, my truth, in beauty. Poetry needs no apology; not even that. Nor does anything else worth doing.
Reinhold Messner soloed Everest and everybody hated him, the egocentric, self-promoting, overpaid, bastard mountaineering genius. He is the greatest climber of his age, with the conquests to prove it. He has a castle in the Alps, and best-selling books, and movies and money and beautiful women for company. Messner picked off every one of the 8000-meter peaks. "By fair means" no artificial oxygen, no vast arrays of porters, just Alpine-style assaults on the highest places, alone with a camera and a contract.
Messner is a little cracked, but who are we to pull him down? All he does is all he's told by everything this crazy world surrounds us with that drags us down and builds us up and tumbles us around and round until we don't know how to be or who we are or what we do or why.
A poet in community needs to join in ritual, and competition is the way we learn to motivate ourselves, to measure up and be assessed, to find out just how far we came.
Although we know that nothing's best and nothing's worst and every verse is different and every thought is possible, and so it makes no sense to say that this one wins and that one loses, or even that this one is good and this one well, what do you say? still somehow corruption holds us in its ugly fist and what we do for no one else receives some kind of validation from a judge who gives a Yes.
If applause is ever the point, it is never deserved.
In '53, the expedition had to walk for weeks before they even saw the mountain, and everything was carried in by hired men and women. If you came from Kathmandu, you climbed the mountain, up and down, before you even reached its base. Endless rhododendron forests, interspersed with distant views of the awesome Himalaya, jagged mountains, cold and new, from which icy rivers rushed, which you crossed on little bridges made of rope, balancing your twenty kilos up to fifty for the porters tying prayer flags in the middle to protect you from the fall.
Now the tourists fly to Lukla, saving so much time that in a month they see it all well, not the top and fly back to their work at home.
Now the forest is in danger, now the trash is piling up, now the electric plant is working now the western pop is heard, now the Sherpas are wearing jeans, now everyone has foreign sneakers, now your Coke is just a dollar even at 15,000 feet, now the inns have private rooms, now the fields are neglected when the trekking season comes, now the world has come to Namche and Namche starts to disappear.
For this they need the airport. And Hillary built it.
Aldrin saw the earth from the moon. He went as a pilot and a scientist and a man who wanted to be first. He got aced out of the history books, and he came back a mystic who could not bear the news he brought, and drank for years, and screwed around (both senses) and finally awoke and understood something he has tried for years to express and maybe somewhere he knows a peace.
Buzz needed the naked power to comprehend the ineffable, to see the sun and live.
Everywhere we go, everything we do, every time we speak, every chance we take, every choice we choose, every game we lose or think we win, every day and god knows every night, something happens we cannot expect, something comes to us whether we want it or no, something is and something will be.
We cannot choose what happens to us, but we can choose the way we try to choose.
It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.
Hillary asked what they wanted in Khumbu, and they wanted a school, so he made one. That's why he built the airstrip, yaks and people dragging treetrunks to smooth the mountainside, to bring in materials and with them the catalyst that cured what was by killing it and made what is by accident.
He sped the process up a little, that's all.
Legless Brian has a voice. Of course it makes no sense. Look at the geek, he lost his legs, he really means it, man. But how does it feel to the freak with a message, what is it like inside? If he exploits celebrity to bring his world some sense, does that justify his pain? Has he paid so much he must be right or his life's destroyed in vain? If he went to a cave in the mountain, would that mean that he'd done his bit and it wasn't ever enough? If he did it for himself, is he now an ego star? If he did it for the world, isn't that an ego trip? Is it worse to want to look good to the world or to yourself? Is it ego not to want your ego to get stroked?
Brian walks on metal legs but he walks with his eyes open.
When I do well, I know; but I am weak, I doubt. In the prison of my head, no one tells me, 'This is good' except myself and everyone I've ever known thinks they're crap, sometimes.
Hillary says he's mediocre and easily bored.
The universe is awful when you think and frightening when you don't, and whether or not you let it stop you's all that's up to you.
All the people in this poem are imaginary. Hillary and Armstrong, and Aldrin and Messner, and Brian and Kim and all the rest, and you and me, and all of us. It's not the press that made us up, it's not TV, it's not the neighbors down the street, it's not the father in his grave, it's not the singer on the airwaves, not the pundit in his books, not the mother living on in the rosebed in the garden that's been sold, not the kids who never came, not the friend who knows her name, not the water bearer up above, not the Gaia I don't love who doesn't love me or herself, not the DNA inside me, not the worms I will become, not the future, not the present, not the past in all its shame, not the moment in its glory, not the heaven I don't know, not the hell I love to hate, not the daisy or the kitten, not the Clio in the driveway, not the money in the bank, not the holiday in Florence, not the 49ers triumph, not the pleasures of the senses, not the logic of the mind, all of this and none of this and all of them and none of them are true.
But sometimes when the rhythm's right, or when the sex is really special, or when the words fall into place, or when you see, or when you act, or when you think and don't know why, or when you smile or even cry, or when you pray at Swayambhu, or when you paint the garden wall, or when you know, yes, when you know,
Sometimes you are.
And when you climb your Everest,