Thursday, August 28, 2014

`It's a Very Solitary Instrument'

If this blog has accomplished anything worthwhile in eight and a half years, it is to keep alive the names and works of good writers half-lost to oblivion. There’s no fairness to literary reputation. Mediocrities thrive, worthies fade. The only true act of criticism is to read a writer attentively and share your pleasure or displeasure with another, whether in a high-toned journal or over breakfast. Chief among the writers I’ve championed for the most selfish of reasons, undiluted enjoyment, are two American poets, L.E. Sissman (1928-1976) and Herbert Morris (1928-2001). At a website called Spoken Web I found a recording of a reading Sissman gave at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in 1972, seven years after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and four years before his death. The sound of his voice was new to me, deeper and somehow more richly American than I had imagined. A Detroit native, Sissman speaks with Midwestern flatness mitigated by a hint of Harvard. His voice is strong, betraying no cancer or its treatment. He talks like a polite and almost pedantic wiseguy, interrupting and revising himself frequently, a quality we find in his poems. 

Of the first poem he reads, “Mouth Organ Tunes, The American Lost-and-Found,” Sissman says he tried to capture “the terminal flatness and grain-ness of American life, United States life, and the attempts to alleviate this barrenness by all sorts of temporizing accommodations, going to Howard Johnson’s on a Sunday, or having a kinky party in New York to show off one’s new paintings or celebrating the death of a genuine antique American and New Englander and looking at the house that he lived in and so on.” 

In the poem and in Sissman’s comments, I detect no Ginsbergian snottiness about middle-class Americans. No contempt or condescension. The first section of the poem is titled “In a Ho-Jo’s by the River,” and Sissman is celebrating a familiar fixture of the American road. The only other writer I recall who singles out Howard Johnson’s is Stanley Elkin in the first phrase of the first sentence in The Franchiser (1976): “Past the orange roof and turquoise tower…” Sissman continues: 

“Anyway the tune is called, the poem is called `Mouth Organ Tunes,” and I use the mouth organ as an instrument here to suggest the, well the mouth organ is something that can be played in a band, but is better not, it’s a very solitary instrument and to me it always conveys the loneliness of an individual against insurmountable odds.” 

Not to mention cowboys around the campfire, bluesmen and Larry Adler – an all-American instrument. The other poems Sissman reads, all found in Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman (1978), are “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” “The Birdman of Cambridge, Mass.,” “A College Room, Lowell R-34, 1945,” “East Congress and McDougal Streets, Detroit, May 25,” “The Museum of Comparative Zoology,” “A  Deathplace,” “Getting On: Grave Expectations,” “The Mid-Forties: On Meeting No One in New York,” “A Comedy in Ruins” and “Cockaigne: A Dream.” 

About “East Congress and McDougal Streets, Detroit, May 25,” Sissman tells the audience it was about a “shattering experience” he had in 1964 when he returned to his old neighborhood in Detroit and found “how puny it was and how destroyed it was by the passage of time.” The poem recalls Donald Justice’s disciplined excursions into nostalgia. In it he writes: “This was Jerusalem, our vivid valley. / In our dead neighborhood / Now nothing more can come to good.” Here is the poem’s final line: “My thirst for the past is easy to appease.” 

Introducing “A Deathplace,” Sissman says: “Let me get onto a poem that is now again a little bit more serious, although not ultimately so I hope. It's about being very sick at the hospital and knowing one is in good hands.” The poem, the only one Sissman reads explicitly acknowledging the cancer that was killing him, has one of his grim, memorable, witty openings: 

“Very few people know where they will die,
But I do: in a brick-faced hospital,
Divided, not unlike Caesarean Gaul,
Into three parts.” 

And here are the final four lines: 

“Then one fine day when all the smart flags flap,
A booted man in black with a peaked cap
Will call for me and troll me down the hall
And slot me into his black car. That’s all.”

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