Man on Wire
It was charged as “the artistic crime of the century,” and it was the first time I considered becoming a criminal. I watched Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who secretly strung a high wire between the Twin Towers in 1974. The artist in me was utterly taken by this tale of a criminal break-in for the purpose of effecting a grand, artistic feat. He would be French, too, freaking French people!—this art-for-its-own-sake snobbery and sensuality, this enchanting and exasperating high-mindedness, this impracticality I frown upon and secretly embrace with all my quixotic heart.
I was charmed by the paradox of such serious skills and arduous study required for such a seemingly airy and whimsical lark (see also: comedians as the most serious and exacting people in the room). It took Petit and his team six years of secret investigations and reconnaissance, of studying the right times to enter, mimicking the workers’ uniforms, forging fake I.D.’s, researching the construction of the towers and choosing correct materials, crouching for hours in catatonic poses to avoid security guards, then more hours trying to shoot a steel cable from one tower to the next with a bow and arrow—all so a prancing Frenchman could walk the sky for the pure pleasure of enacting a thing of daring and beauty and grace. The people applauded below, enchanted. He was pardoned, of course, garnering further approval from delighted denizens used to toeing a far different line. (But isn’t it Beauty and Grace that, in the end, will or won’t pardon us?)
Inspired, I wrote a poem. Petit’s tightrope launched me into deeper themes, but I won’t muddle it with explanations. Hopefully it speaks for itself.
Man on Wire
Look! A figure splits the skies
A wire walker crosses heaven
Man in suspense between dirt and dawn,
Between where he begins and where he goes,
Journey brief and yet a lifetime.
Does he grieve the wire’s tight scale?
Or is this narrow road his art
The dance of the firm in the hissing expanse
Form in the formless: the footsteps of faith
We all must cross from here to there
The Man on the wire has made it beautiful
The men on the ground lift their eyes