Wednesday, February 26, 2014

`I Hope I'll See You Anon'

“Ed Sissman was polite, considerate, and eminently interested in other people—interested in their ways of speaking, as poets tend to be, but also in their habits, preoccupations, values.” 

L.E. Sissman – “Ed” to friends -- was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1965 at the age of thirty-seven. Three years later he published his first collection of poems, Dying: An Introduction, followed by Scattered Returns (1969), Pursuit of Honor (1971) and Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L. E. Sissman, published posthumously in 1978. Sissman was a triply rare American poet – supremely gifted, blessed with a talent for happiness and a career in advertising. Ron Slate, another poet and business man, once referred to Sissman as “one of my models and heroes.” 

The passage quoted at the top is from The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (1989) by Robert Coles, the child psychiatrist, prolific writer and longtime professor at Harvard, where he taught a class in literature and medicine to medical students. In a chapter titled “Interlude: Bringing Poems to Medical School Teaching,” Coles describes a phone call he received in January 1974 from Sissman, already his friend: “I could tell by his voice that this was no casual request.” They met in Coles’ study the following day, when Sissman “beg[ged] my forgiveness, initially, for the `self-indulgence’ to come—the talk about himself. I was struck by the memorable quaintness of this formality. It provided such a contrast with the assumption so many of us have (and not only with respect to the doctors we visit) that the subject of ourselves in an ideal one for the ears of others.” 

Sissman is our poet laureate of death, dying and cancer, and yet his poems, while intimate and unsparing, are never confessional in the banal sense. Rather, they are witty and coolly observant. Sissman is a deeply civilized man and poet, and never stuffy or sententious. Coles quotes him as saying, after describing his job, poetry and wife: “I also have a life as a patient, and it gets busier and busier these days.” They met weekly after that, and Sissman’s preoccupation emerges: “He was also beginning to have trouble  writing poems. Lines would come to him, especially in the morning, upon awakening, but he couldn’t seem to pull them together into a poem. Sometime he even had no `energy or desire’ to even to write down the words, the images, the metaphors.” Sissman continued writing his monthly column in The Atlantic, “Innocent Bystander,” of which Coles says: “His prose was as pungent as ever, and as shrewdly intelligent.” But the poems dried up. Before Coles could address the drought, Sissman countered: “You’re going to use words now, I guess, to explain my inability with them.” And this: “The muse has departed the body—looking back upon its quickening decline.” 

Coles is perceptive enough to understand that Sissman, “eminently interested in other people,” realized “he had an anxious doctor on his hands.” At that point, Sissman suggests that Coles “bring some poems to those medical students of yours,” and helps him draw up a reading list, including work by physician-writers – Chekhov, Walker Percy, William Carlos Williams – and others. Coles also includes poems by Sissman – “Dying: An Introduction,” “Negatives,” “Homage to Clotho: A Hospital Suite” and “Cancer: A Dream.” Coles writes: 

“His title for his posthumously collected poems, Hello, Darkness, conveys the calm amiability of this tall, dignified man whose sheer brilliance and erudition had been unnerved by an illness; yet illness gave him cause for terribly unnerving lyrics, ones that medical students today, over a decade after his death, still find `exactly to the point,’  as I heard it put in class recently.” 

Coles’ account of his final telephone conversation with Sissman is at once heartbreaking and wryly amusing: 

“He called me shortly before he died [in March 1976] to tell me he’d not be keeping our next `appointment.’ He kept using that word, in spite of my efforts to rid both of us of it. I hastened to offer an alternative date. `No need for that,’ he told me. Stupidly, fearfully unaware (not only patients `deny’), I pressed the matter, so that he had to end it, finally, by saying a firm good-bye: `I hope I’ll see you anon.’ That last word succeeded—by its slight awkwardness, its antiquity, its rendering of the present and the future, its capacity to break through conventional, temporal statements—in conveying what he had long known better than I: that death had no intention of waiting very long for him. That `anon’ was the next to last word I heard from Ed. I promised, too wordily, an imminent visit, and he said, `Good-bye,’ and meant it.” Not long afterward I was sitting in a church, listening to his friends sing of him, and sitting in a class, talking with future doctors about the singing he did during his stay on earth.” 

In “To L.E. Sissman, 1928-1976” (The Transparent Man, 1990), his friend Anthony Hecht writes: 

“Dear friend, whose poetry of Brooklyn flats
And poker sharps broadcasts the tin pan truths
Of all our yesterdays, speaks to our youths
In praise of both Wallers, Edmund and Fats…” 

The poem on the facing page is “The Transparent Man,” narrated by a woman dying of leukemia.

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