Saturday, March 21, 2015

`Softly Through My Mind'

L.E. Sissman dedicated his second collection of poems, Scattered Returns (1969), to Howard Moss (1922-1987), the poet, critic and for almost forty years, poetry editor of The New Yorker. On the dedication page, Sissman includes an epigraph to the volume, four unsigned, presumably self-penned lines of verse: 

“The highest artist grapples up his art
One-handed; with the other, reaches out
To those below him on the slope above
The anonymous abyss: a grasp of love.” 

And with his third hand, he’s pulled along by the artists who preceded him up the rope of art. That’s a wise guy way of saying that even the most wayward artist, the most furiously individual, is just one member of a vast acrobatic team. Perhaps Sissman numbers Moss, just six years his senior, among the helping hands, though an unscientific sounding of the literary Zeitgeist suggests Moss has slipped quietly into the “anonymous abyss.” That’s a humbling reminder to writers that reputations, even the grandest, evaporate with the morning dew. Sissman’s isn’t in jeopardy because it hardly condensed in the first place, at least among influential tastemakers. Dying at age forty-eight didn’t help, though the cancer that killed him inspired much of his best work. We can thank Danny Heitman for helping to keep Sissman’s work alive. Heitman suggests we fill out the shelf already occupied by Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman (1978) and Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s (1975) with his letters and the uncollected prose (he reviewed Gravity’s Rainbow for The New Yorker): 

To read Sissman’s work is to wish for more of it. His letters and book reviews remain uncollected, something an enterprising university press should try to correct. At the very least, an anthology of his out-of-print writings is long overdue.” 

Heitman cites an essay from Innocent Bystander, “The Constant Rereader’s Bookshelf,” in which Sissman says “rereading is, for me, the most satisfying, if not the most profitable, kind of reading.” Permit me to quibble: no reading is more profitable than rereading. We reread a writer – in this case, Sissman -- because he has already proven himself. He is trustworthy. As Sissman says, his “rhythms…move softly through my mind.”

1 comment:

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

I've always appreciated Nabokov's comment that there is no reading BUT rereading. Your post has inspired me to order Sissman's books, which I originally read in library copies.