Tulips

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.   
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.   
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.   
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses   
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff   
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,   
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.   
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,   
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;   
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat   
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.   
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley   
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books   
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.   
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them   
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.   

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe   
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.   
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,   
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,   
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.   
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,   
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow   
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,   
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.   
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.   
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river   
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.   
They concentrate my attention, that was happy   
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;   
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,   
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

– Silvia Plath

First Memory

Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
to revenge myself
against my father, not
for what he was—
for what I was: from the beginning of time,
in childhood, I thought
that pain meant
I was not loved.
It meant I loved.

– Louise Glück

The White Lilies

As a man and woman make
a garden between them like
a bed of stars, here
they linger in the summer evening
and the evening turns
cold with their terror: it
could all end, it is capable
of devastation. All, all
can be lost, through scented air
the narrow columns
uselessly rising, and beyond, 
a churning sea of poppies–

Hush, beloved. It doesn’t matter to me
how many summers I live to return:
this one summer we have entered eternity.
I felt your two hands
bury me to release its splendor.

– Louise Glück

The Vacation

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was having it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

– Wendell Berry

The Afterlife

While you are preparing for sleep, brushing your teeth,
or riffling through a magazine in bed,
the dead of the day are setting out on their journey.

They’re moving off in all imaginable directions,
each according to his own private belief,
and this is the secret that silent Lazarus would not reveal:
that everyone is right, as it turns out.
you go to the place you always thought you would go,
The place you kept lit in an alcove in your head.

Some are being shot into a funnel of flashing colors
into a zone of light, white as a January sun.
Others are standing naked before a forbidding judge who sits
with a golden ladder on one side, a coal chute on the other.

Some have already joined the celestial choir
and are singing as if they have been doing this forever,
while the less inventive find themselves stuck
in a big air conditioned room full of food and chorus girls.

Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door.

There are those who are squeezing into the bodies
of animals–eagles and leopards–and one trying on
the skin of a monkey like a tight suit,
ready to begin another life in a more simple key,

while others float off into some benign vagueness,
little units of energy heading for the ultimate elsewhere.

There are even a few classicists being led to an underworld
by a mythological creature with a beard and hooves.
He will bring them to the mouth of the furious cave
guarded over by Edith Hamilton and her three-headed dog.

The rest just lie on their backs in their coffins
wishing they could return so they could learn Italian
or see the pyramids, or play some golf in a light rain.
They wish they could wake in the morning like you
and stand at a window examining the winter trees,
every branch traced with the ghost writing of snow.

(And some just smile, forever on)

– Billy Collins

The Meaning of Life

We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

The quest to understand the meaning of life has haunted humanity since the dawn of existence. Modern history alone has given us a plethora of attempted answers, including ones from Steve Jobs, David Foster Wallace, Anais Nin, Ray Bradbury, and Jackson Pollock’s dad. In 1988, the editors of LIFE magazine posed this grand question head-on to 300 “wise men and women,” from celebrated authors, actors, and artists to global spiritual leaders to everyday farmers, barbers, and welfare mothers. In 1991, they collected the results, along with a selection of striking black-and-white photographs from the magazine’s archives that answered the question visually and abstractly, in The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here . Here is a selection of the answers.


Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard:

We are here to witness the creation and abet it. We are here to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other. We are here to bring to consciousness the beauty and power that are around us and to praise the people who are here with us. We witness our generation and our times. We watch the weather. Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, things fall apart. Structures disintegrate. Buckminster Fuller hinted at a reason we are here: By creating things, by thinking up new combinations, we counteract this flow of entropy. We make new structures, new wholeness, so the universe comes out even. A shepherd on a hilltop who looks at a mess of stars and thinks, ‘There’s a hunter, a plow, a fish,’ is making mental connections that have as much real force in the universe as the very fires in those stars themselves.


Legendary science writer Stephen Jay Gould:

The human species has inhabited this planet for only 250,000 years or so-roughly.0015 percent of the history of life, the last inch of the cosmic mile. The world fared perfectly well without us for all but the last moment of earthly time–and this fact makes our appearance look more like an accidental afterthought than the culmination of a prefigured plan.

Moreover, the pathways that have led to our evolution are quirky, improbable, unrepeatable and utterly unpredictable. Human evolution is not random; it makes sense and can be explained after the fact. But wind back life’s tape to the dawn of time and let it play again–and you will never get humans a second time.

We are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists. This explanation, though superficially troubling, if not terrifying, is ultimately liberating and exhilarating. We cannot read the meaning of life passively in the facts of nature. We must construct these answers ourselves — from our own wisdom and ethical sense. There is no other way.

 



Bill Owens
Graduation dance

 

Frank Donofrio, a barber:
I have been asking myself why I’m here most of my life. If there’s a purpose I don’t care anymore. I’m seventy-four. I’m on my way out. Let the young people learn the hard way, like I did. No one ever told me anything.

 



Leonard Freed
Harlem summer day


Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke:

A wise man once said that all human activity is a form of play. And the highest form of play is the search for Truth, Beauty and Love. What more is needed? Should there be a ‘meaning’ as well, that will be a bonus?

If we waste time looking for life’s meaning, we may have no time to live — or to play.



Franco Zecchin
Sicily


Literary icon John Updike:

Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.

Poet Charles Bukowski:
For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command or faith a dictum. I am my own God.

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state and our educational system.

We are here to drink beer.

We are here to kill war.

We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.

Avant-garde composer and philosopher John Cage:
No why. Just here.

 

On The Surface of Things

I.
In my room, the world is beyond my understanding;
But when I walk I see that it consists of three or four
hills and a cloud.

II.
From my balcony, I survey the yellow air,
Reading where I have written,
“The spring is like a belle undressing.”

III.
The gold tree is blue,
The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.
The moon is in the folds of the cloak.

– Wallace Stevens

Oranges

Cut one, the lace of acid 
rushes out, spills over your hands. 
You lick them, manners don’t come into it. 
Orange. The first word you have heard that day 

enters your mind. Everybody then 
does what he or she wants; breakfast is casual. 
Slices, quarters, halves, or the whole hand 
holding an orange ball like the morning sun 

on a day of soft wind and no clouds 
which it so often is. “Oh, I always 
want to live like this, 
flying up out of the furrows of sleep, 

fresh from water and its sheer excitement, 
felled as though by a miracle 
at this first sharp taste of the day!” 
You’re shouting, but no one is surprised. 

Here, there, everywhere on the earth 
thousands are rising and shouting with you, 
even those who are utterly silent, absorbed, 
their mouths filled with such sweetness. 

– Mary Oliver

Dear Person, A Jack Lemmon Tribute

WALTER MATTHAU TO JACK LEMMON

June 3, 1979

Dear Jack,

Your inability to win the Tony Award has put a deep strain on our relationship. Please don’t try to get too familiar with us anymore. Your incompetence is shameful. Go suck on a popsicle.

Walter


JACK LEMMON TO BURT REYNOLDS

November 7, 1978

Dear Person:

I have been meaning to get a hold of you for days, but I’m very big on Broadway and I have very little time to give cogent advice to younger hopefuls.

However, the entire city of New York has informed me that by an incredible stroke of luck you will be attending this Thursday’s performance of “Tribute” (which will be brilliant), and I merely wanted to know if you would like to enjoy the added thrill of having dinner with the star afterwards?

I don’t want to rattle you, but if you say no it may fuck-up the entire performance.

I would also like you to know that this invitation is extended only because of the lady you are bringing, who is a hell of a lot more attractive than you are!

In readiness,

John Uhler Lemmon III


JACK LEMMON TO BURT REYNOLDS

June 7, 1982

Dear Person:

It has come to my attention that you sent a contribution of $10,000 to the Jack Lemmon Burn Center in the Children’s Hospital of Buffalo.

I just wanted to say that I’m sorry that you couldn’t come up with a sizable contribution, but God knows after all these years I, as much as anyone, understand the ups and downs of this crazy business. Some years are good, some years are bad, and even though you’re obviously on the shit list, I certainly appreciate the fact that you made some kind of effort no matter how meager.

I do think it is important for me to clarify an area of possible confusion on your part. Burn Centre has nothing to do with critical reaction to your work. However, it’s too fucking late so we’re going to keep the money and help a hell of a lot of kids.

One of these days I’m going to work with you even if it kills me (and it probably will).

Many thanks, and love,

Jack


JACK LEMMON TO MICHAEL DOUGLAS

December 14, 1987

Dear Person,

Let’s face it—I have been in the acting dodge for centuries and I think I know a little bit about talent and human behavior and I know that you’re one dandy fella’ personally and a joy to work with professionally, but I also now know that that’s a crock of shit because I don’t care how good an actor is, nobody could play that part [Gordon Gekko in Wall Street] the way you did without basically being a rotten stinking insensitive vicious prick and I am personally going to spread the word and I don’t ever want to speak to you again.

Congratulations, you were absolutely brilliant.

Always,

Jack


JACK LEMMON TO WALTER MATTHAU

December 23rd, 1988

Dear Waltz:

I know you’re always interested in looking for opportunities for investment.

I don’t know if you would be interested in this, but I thought I would mention it to you because it could be a real “sleeper” in making a lot of money with very little investment.

A group of us are considering investing in a large cat ranch near Hermosillo, Mexico. It is our purpose to start rather small, with about one million cats. Each cat averages about twelve kittens a year: skins can be sold for about 20¢ for the white ones and up to 40¢ for the black. This will give us 12 million cat skins per year to sell at an average price of around 32¢, making our revenues about $3 million a year. This really averages out to £10 thousand a day – excluding Sundays and holidays.

A good Mexican cat man can skin about 50 cats per day at a wage of $3.15 a day. It will only take 663 men to operate the ranch so the net profit would be over $8,200 per day.

Now, the cats would be fed on rats exclusively. Rats multiply four times as fast as cats. We would start a ranch adjacent to our cat farm. If we start with a million rats, we will have four rats per cat each day. The rats will be fed on the carcasses of the cats that we skin. This will give each rat a quarter of a cat. You can see by this that this business is a clean operation – self-supporting and really automatic throughout. The cats will eat the rats and the rats will eat the cats and we will get the skins.

Let me know if you are interested. As you can imagine, I am rather particular who I want to get into this, and want the fewest investors possible.

Eventually, it is my hope to cross the cats with snakes, for they will skin themselves twice a year. This would save labor costs of skinning as well as give me two skins for one cat.

I really felt that giving you an opportunity like this would be the greatest Christmas present possible.

Love,

Jack

20

I must inform you I am unable to accept your rejection

In 1981, when Paul Devlin was in high school applying for a university place, he received a rejection letter from Harvard which, to his great satisfaction, contained a grammatical error. Never one to miss an opportunity, Paul quickly decided that he must reject Harvard’s rejection letter for that very reason, by letter—a process so therapeutic that Paul then decided to respond to all subsequent rejections, of which there were a few, with the following form letter. It became so popular that in May of 1981 it was reprinted in the New York Times


Office of Admissions

Dear Sir/Madam:

Having now reviewed the many rejection letters received in the last few weeks, it is with great regret that I must inform you I am unable to accept your rejection at this time.

This year, I applied to a great number of fine colleges and universities and, of course, received many rejection letters. Unfortunately, the number of rejections that I can accept is very limited. It is for that reason that I was forced to reject the rejection letters of many qualified institutions. 

This was not an easy task. Each rejection was reviewed carefully and on an individual basis. Many factors were taken into account, such as the size of the institution, student-faculty ratio, location, reputation, cost and social atmosphere.

I am certain that most of the colleges I applied to are more than qualified to reject me. I am also sure that some mistakes were made, but I hope they were few in number.

I am aware of the disappointment this decision may bring, for these were not easy judgements. Throughout my deliberations, I have kept in mind the importance to you of this decision. I wish it were possible to cite specific reasons for each of the determinations I have made but, frankly, it is not. 

It was even necessary for me to reject some letters that were clearly qualified as rejections. This is surely my loss. 

I appreciate your having enough interest in me to reject me, and, although it may seem inappropriate to you at this time, let me take the opportunity to wish you well in what I am sure will be a highly successful academic year.

See you all in the fall!

Sincerely,

Paul Devlin

Applicant at Large

Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong

After Frank O’Hara / After Roger Reeves

Ocean, don’t be afraid. 
The end of the road is so far ahead 
it is already behind us. 
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father 
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine 
won’t remember its wings 
no matter how many times our knees 
kiss the pavement. Ocean, 
are you listening? The most beautiful part 
of your body is wherever 
your mother’s shadow falls. 
Here’s the house with childhood 
whittled down to a single red tripwire. 
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon 
& you’ll never reach it. 
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not 
a lifeboat. Here’s the man 
whose arms are wide enough to gather 
your leaving. & here the moment, 
just after the lights go out, when you can still see 
the faint torch between his legs. 
How you use it again & again 
to find your own hands. 
You asked for a second chance 
& are given a mouth to empty into. 
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire 
is only the sound of people 
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean, 
get up. The most beautiful part of your body 
is where it’s headed. & remember, 
loneliness is still time spent 
with the world. Here’s 
the room with everyone in it. 
Your dead friends passing 
through you like wind through a wind 
chime. Here’s a desk 
with the gimp leg & a brick 
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room 
so warm & blood-close, 
I swear, you will wake— 
& mistake these walls 
for skin.

– Ocean Vuong