Thursday, December 11, 2008

`Nowhere Is All Around Us'

How thrilling and brave that a poet who had cancer for 11 years and died of the disease at age 48 should begin a poem with the phrase “Life is so long…” and that it should be published posthumously in his Collected Poems. No one has written so unromantically and with such wit about the certainty of a foreshortened life as L.E. Sissman. Never “inspirational” in the banal sense – no cheerleading or related fraudulence -- his humor and mastery of craft inspire admiration. Here is “Spring Song,” written in the spring of 1972, four years before Sissman’s death:

“Life is so long the passage of the seasons
Blurs like a carrousel before the static
Eyes of the onlooker who, rising fifty,
Grows slow and oaklike, dying in his fashion
Of imperceptible progress to the autumn,
While grasses spring in unison from the meadows
Full-blown in seconds, lilacs bloom and blacken
In minutes, apple blossoms shuck their petals
And grow green fruit in hours, ashes open
Fistfuls of leaflets, whose light-green veins darken
To forest green, lighten to tones of copper,
And fall down in a day to usher winter
Into his complex of spare silver branches,
His winter palace, in a growing silence.
I hate, as agent for my slowly failing
Senses, my withering sinews, drying juices,
And hardening heart, these hasty evidences
Of what I’ll come to in the coming season
Of reckoning, when all the green will vanish
From expectation, all anticipation
Of folly to be rectified tomorrow
Will perish, and a leafless log of body
Will be cast on the wood fire in December.”

“I hate” is a rare locution in Sissman. In some poets, its vulgarity signals an end to reading the poem; in Sissman, we listen harder. He was not by nature a hater and explicit emoting was never his way. The poem’s time-lapse conceit – watching the human life cycle reflected in the speeded-up comings and goings of the seasons – could have been mawkish (“Sunrise, sunset...”). With his title, is Sissman nodding to Mendelssohn? With his first word, is he lobbing a rejoinder at Berryman’s “Dream Song 14” and its famous opening line: “Life, friends, is boring.” That’s more fancy than scholarship, based on an idiosyncratic map of American poetry, but it’s hard to imagine Sissman bored. His poems glitter with what Peter Davison calls a “wide-ranging engagement with the world around him” – too rare a poetic quality.

Wanting to know the dying words of loved ones and those we admire is understandable. We hope they represent a summation or distillation we can learn from, suspecting their wisdom confers immunity. Thoreau is supposed to have murmured “moose” and “Indian” at the end, so even in death we suspect he was preoccupied with the things he loved in life. Reading Sissman’s poems is like that. We grant death’s inevitability, but how does it feel to know its arrival is imminent? What can it teach us? In another late poem, “Homage to Clotho: A Hospital Suite,” Sissman writes:

“Nowhere is all around us, pressureless,
A vacuum waiting for a rupture in
The tegument, a puncture in the skin,
To pass inside without a password and
Implode us into Erewhon.”

This is more abstract – anyone’s death, but coolly chronicled, without bravado or cowering. Such knowledge changes a man. He can deny it or he can accept the precious fragility and live his life accordingly, as he sees fit. At the end of the poem, home again, another reprieve, the speaker notices leaves (as in “Spring Song”) – “sportive maple leaves” – skittering across the driveway. He imagines Clotho the spinner and the other Fates preparing to “send me to befriend the winter leaves.” Boswell reports in his Life of Johnson:

“To my question, as to whether we might fortify our minds for the approach of death, he answered in a passion, `No, Sir, let it alone. It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time.’ He added, with an earnest look, `A man knows it must be so, and submits. It will do him no good to whine.’”

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