Sunday, December 29, 2013

`Through My Invisible New Veil of Finity'

The title poem in L.E. Sissman’s remarkably accomplished first collection, Dying: An Introduction (1968), has for its epigraph the opening lines of Philip Larkin’s “Next, Please” (The Less Deceived, 1955): “Always too eager for the future, we / Pick up bad habits of expectancy.” Sissman’s poem originally appeared in the June 3, 1967, issue of The New Yorker, less than two years after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that would kill him in 1976. Has poetry about disease and death ever been so bright, witty, and Mozartian, so free of self-pity and false cheer? While writing most of his first book, Sissman was undergoing multiple hospitalizations, radiation treatments and chemotherapy. Sissman saw in Larkin not the grim pessimist of conventional understanding but a bracingly Johnsonian truth-teller free of illusions about mortality. Elsewhere, he calls Larkin “the Midlands existentialist.” 

In his notes to the Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett quotes from a 1951 letter Larkin wrote to his girlfriend Monica Jones while working on “Next, Please”: “I think it’s just another example of the danger of looking forward to things…an attempt to capture my feeling on returning here [i.e. Belfast]: a sense of amazement that what we wait for so long & therefore seems so long in coming shouldn’t take a proportionately long time to pass – instead of zipping away at the same speed as everything else.” No mention here of death. In fact, Larkin makes no overt reference to it until the final stanza: 

“Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.”

Death is the only promise always kept, though the theme is less death’s inevitability than time and our subjective sense of its passing, and the way we suffuse it with our expectations. We measure duration by our satisfactions or their absence.  Of the “tiny, clear / Sparkling armada of promises,” he writes, “We think each one will heave to and unload / All good into our lives.” At this point, Larkin withholds the predictable, palliative bromides:  Live in the now! Carpe diem! One day at a time! In “Dying: An Introduction,” Sissman recounts his original cancer diagnosis, beginning with a lump on his leg. After the tissue sample is taken for the biopsy, he writes: “I leave to live out my three days, / Reprieved from findings and their pain.” The diagnosis (“Turns out to end in –oma”) comes on a spring-like day in November. The poem concludes: 

“Through my
Invisible new veil
Of finity, I see
November’s world—
Low scud, slick street, three giggling girls—
As, oddly, not as sombre
As December,
But as green
As anything:
As spring.”

1 comment:

Brian said...

Delightful. Clearly, I need to know more of Sissman.

Larkin's "black sailed unfamiliar" stanza gives, in its beautiful recognition of finality, satisfaction bordering on awe.