Friday, June 12, 2015

`And You Must Read Me'

The signature is wispy as a child’s rendering of wind. The “C” is a horizontal line almost imperceptibly curved at one end, the “H” a barred seven, and “Sisson” little more than a minimalist flourish. The volume is a first edition paperback of Collected Poems, published in 1998 by Carcanet, which I ordered from a book dealer in England. The virtual absence of his name’s presence suggests the opening sentences of Sisson’s On the Look-Out: A Partial Autobiography (Carcanet, 1989):   

“I have the greatest difficulty in believing in the existence of human personality, and I hardly know what sort of thing it would be if it did exist. That there are people—men and women, conveniently classified as such—I can of course see as well as the next man. But it is evident that when people talk of themselves they are thinking of something quite different . . . I find it easier to believe in God than in the existence of personality. That puts some difficulties in the way of an autobiography.”

On the front end-paper is a small white label stamped “AA” with the name Anthony Astbury printed below. Astbury is a poet and director of the Greville Press, which he founded in 1975 and named after Fulke Greville. In 1991, his press published Sisson’s Nine Sonnets. Tucked into the Collected Poems are photocopies of two obituaries of Sisson, who died Sept. 5, 2003 at the age of eighty-nine. One, written by Robert Nye, was published in the Royal Society of Literature’s review RSL. On it, Nye has written to Astbury: “You might not have seen this—done for the Royal Society of Literature, of which Charles and I had the honor to be Fellows.” In the obit, Nye quotes a satirical couplet by Sisson, who worked for thirty years in the Civil Service, retiring in 1972 as director of Occupational Safety and Health in the Department of Employment: “Here lies a civil servant. He was civil / To everyone, and servant to the devil.” Nye writes:

“Like much of his satire, that pins down its subject at a single stab, but it certainly won’t do as Sisson’s own epitaph. It was typical of the man and the poet to speak of himself with a kind of scrupulous self-deprecating irony, but he was servant to a more difficult and demanding master than the author of lies.”

The other obituary, published in Church Times, was written by Fraser Steel: “The content of his verse is often bleak (`Oh Light, I do not want you / The years have taken away / Whatever there was lovely / In the day’) [from “Burrington Combe” in Exactions, 1980], but that, in combination with its individual and authoritative cadence, and the way it expresses a consciousness informed by profound historical, political and theological insight, is its attraction for those who are capable of being touched by such things.”

I don’t fetishize first editions or signed copies, and don’t acquire them as investments or show them off like bowling trophies. Who would care? What I prize is the connection with a writer I admire, a genetically specific trace as real as a hand shake. My new copy of Collected Poems is nothing fancy, bibliophilically speaking. The spine shows evidence of frequent openings and the edges are smudged. Astbury and any subsequent owners left no underlinings or other marks, which is not necessarily indicative of inattentive reading. Sisson was a principled contrarian, immune to fashion and dedicated in his contrary way to tradition. “A Dedication” is the final poem, printed in italics like a traditional front-of-the-book dedication, in his 1987 collection God Bless Karl Marx:

Better that you should forget
Everything I ever said,
Everything I did
Should be hidden,
No-one ever know
That I was so:
But I have vanity
And you must read me.”


Henry said...

Sounds like a good copy to have – shame that the 1998 text is rather corrupt (punctuation, words, even lines missing from some poems). When I was researching in the C.H. Sisson archive at Bristol University, I struggled with his notebooks, in which he tended to write with a blunt pencil. In one, I found a draft of a letter, which indicated its importance to him. Though I could read most of it, some sentences were illegible even to my practiced eye. I got a photocopy of the pages and took them to his eldest daughter, who now lives in his house in Langport. She could make nothing of it. She point out that, at the office, he would've dictated to a typist, so never had to worry about messy writing. Two poems that I did manage to decipher from his wartime notebooks appeared in PN Review 217; there were more which I didn't feel confident of having construed correctly.

Subbuteo said...

And yet, this man who doubts in the existence of human personality persists in using the first person pronoun and, presumably expects us to listen to and read the products of his personality. It is very twentieth and, presumably twenty-first century to be miserable about humanity(surely a legacy of the two world wars) but perhaps we need to start rejoicing in it. Human personality exists and is a great joy.

Subbuteo said...

And a little rider. In the UK these days Health and Safety (no longer Safety and Health) executives are the bane of our lives. We are now hag ridden by Health and Safety. There was much amusement a few years ago at the outcome of the meeting of a group of such executives for a convention in a conference centre. They adjourned for lunch in a local hostelry's upstairs room. The floor collapsed (I don't think there were any injuries) , presumably because they had not conducted an adequate risk assessment in advance.