Monday, March 05, 2012

`Slow and Oaklike'

We’ve bid on a house and expect to get it, and as I drove by Sunday afternoon I counted our trees: eight water oaks, three magnolias, two loblolly pines and, biggest and most shapely of all, a live oak in the backyard, a good forty feet across at the drip line. Trees are a comfort and more companionable than some neighbors, colleagues and relatives. Even in a desert I would plant trees for shade, company and the fauna they attract. It’s natural for us to measure ourselves against the trees in our lives. A black oak behind my brother’s house in Cleveland, our house in childhood, was tall and stately when we were kids, and has outlived by more than half a century the elms once among its contemporaries, but now it seems wizened, shrunken by age and infirmity.

In the April 21, 1973, issue of The New Yorker, L.E. Sissman published “Spring Song,” collected posthumously in Hello, Darkness (1978). It reads like an Ovidian time-lapse film of growth, decay and oblivion:

“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 of December.”

After living for eleven years with Hodgkins disease, and writing about it in poems of peerless irony, elegance and stoical wit, Sissman died thirty-six years ago this week, on March 10, 1976, ten days before the arrival of spring. He was forty-eight years old.

[Go here to hear “Joy Spring” performed by the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quartet.]

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