Sunday, December 11, 2016

`He Is Implicit in the Inward Town'

Reading L.E. Sissman, I stumbled on E.A. Robinson:

“Far up the Sheepscot, where the tide goes out,
And leaves the river water free of salt,
And free to foster tame freshwater life,
Far from the sea’s tall terror, wave on wave
And tooth on tooth in the bone-handled jaws
Which ultramariners use as their laws,
I spy the first footprint of Robinson.
Though his birthplace gives little to go on,
He is implicit in the inward town
Where not a soul steps out of doors at noon
And no one stirs behind twelve-over-twelve
Panes in the windows.  Walk uphill yourself
And stand before the cluttered clapboard church
Signed `1830’ by its year of birth;
Look down through ash boughs on the whited town
Where they say he and his love slept alone
Under one roof for life, and where his moon
Singled him out, awake, each moonlight night
That spring tides steered upriver with their salt
And broke in these backwaters; feel his pulse
Still in the riverside and his strait house.”

Nice to see two of my favorite American poets getting along so well. One hopes for sympathy among friends. The poem is “Solo, Head Tide,” from Sissman’s second collection, Scattered Returns (1969). Like Robinson, Sissman doesn’t rely on the “I” to provide scaffolding and move things along. Their poems are seldom about themselves in the banal, transcriptive sense. When a poet or any writer chooses the first-person singular, he’d better justify doing so. (No one, after all, cares about your precious epiphanies and woes.) When another New Englander writes, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,” we snort. You really ought to get out more, Henry. Robinson, a lifelong bachelor, resides among the “isolatoes,” to use the word coined by Melville, likewise a member of that tribe. (I hear an echo of Melville in “the sea’s tall terror.”)

Robinson was born in the village of Head Tide, Maine, which took its name from its location at the headwaters of the Sheepscot River. When Sissman writes, “I spy the first footprint of Robinson,” one thinks of the other Robinson, the solitary Crusoe, who spied Friday’s footprint. The poem’s speaker, likewise, spies only circumstantial evidence of Robinson: “He is implicit in the inward town.” Sissman, a married man, was a more social being, at least until he became one of cancer’s isolatoes. In his essay “The Crystal Year” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s, 1975), Sissman writes:

“We are born alone. We live and die mainly alone. It is not given to us to share wholly the consciousness of another person. But in the long loom of marriage, an intimacy and interpenetration that have little to do with sexuality per se begin to operate.”

No comments: