“We were not, either by temperament or experience, meant to live in paradise.”
Two brothers down the block, five and seven, got bicycles for Christmas, and by 8 a.m. were shooting around the cul-de-sac, shrieking in idiotic joy. They were wearing the Star Wars backpacks also found under the tree, and wore factory-white sneakers. I felt the impossible impulse to somehow record their pure animal pleasure so they could be reminded decades from now, when they are tired and tempted to believe in nothing, that once upon a time it was possible to taste paradise, or its earthly facsimile.
L.E. Sissman had a forgivable surplus of reasons to indulge in self-pity and bitterness with the universe. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1965 at the age of thirty-seven. He published his first collection of poems, Dying: An Introduction, three years later, and transformed himself into our poet laureate of death, dying and cancer, but his sensibility was bigger and more generous than such a description implies. His poems are intimate and unsparing but never confessional in the banal sense. The poems are never impressed by the poet’s courage. They are witty and coolly observant. Sissman is a deeply civilized man and poet, never stuffy or sententious.
The sentence at the top comes from the punningly titled “M’aidez,” an essay collected in Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s, published in 1975, one year before his death at age forty-eight. The essay, devoted to the month of May, embodies a quality I find increasingly attractive in writers and people in general: a gift for carrying on and expressing gratitude despite hardship. Some kids possess it, fewer adults. Sissman’s paragraph continues:
“A little Eden goes a year-long way. May is welcome to come, more welcome to be gone. Unlike children, who can make Edens out of the unlikely raw materials of any season, we are rather resentful of a month that seduces us away from our pursuits and troubles and back into our childish selves.”
Sissman can admire and enjoy children and childlike qualities in others without endorsing the childish strain in the ideologies of the Sixties. I remember a cover of Ramparts magazine from the end of that decade that proclaimed “Utopia Now!” Cambodia soon experienced its own brand of Utopia, as North Korea still does. Sissman writes in the final lines of “A War Requiem” from his second book, Scattered Returns (1969):
To lance against the window, and I see,
By luck, a leisurely and murderous
Shadow detach itself with a marine
Grace from an apple tree. A snowy owl,
Cinereous, nearly invisible,
Planes down its glide path to surprise a vole.”