It’s like L.E. Sissman to mingle high-toned Latin with the titles of popular magazines. He was the coolest of poets – suave and knowing without snobbery – and is describing a visit to his doctor’s office – “For once with an appointment.” This is from the first section of the title poem in Sissman’s first collection, Dying: An Introduction (1968). It originally appeared in the June 3, 1967 issue of The New Yorker, less than two years after he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that would kill him in 1976. During the writing of the book, Sissman was undergoing multiple hospitalizations, radiation treatments and chemotherapy. In the poem he recounts that first cancer diagnosis, beginning with a lump on his leg. After the tissue sample is taken for the biopsy he writes: “I leave to live out my three days, / Reprieved from findings and their pain.” The diagnosis (“Turns out to end in –oma”) comes on a spring-like day in November.
On Sunday, a November-like day in spring, I took my customary walk to Ella [“Fitzgerald,” I always add] Boulevard and into the empty parking lot of the Disciples of Christ church. Doves were at work in the oaks. The fire ants have been busy. I poke one of their mounds with my cane and watch the swarm. I’m reminded of a computer science professor I knew who now works for Google. Once, on my way to the parking lot I saw him squatting at the far side of the engineering quadrangle. As I approached, I could see he was observing an ant mound. All he said was: “Brownian motion.”
I need the cane for walking. The pain from osteoarthritis in my legs has grown more severe in the last year, and I quickly shed any vanity I once had. Most of the other people I saw on my walk, the dog-walkers, joggers and bicyclists, wore masks. My wife has ordered some, but they haven’t arrived.
For his epigraph to the poem, Sissman chose two lines by Philip Larkin from “Next,Please”: “Always too eager for the future, we / Pick up bad habits of expectancy.” In his notes to the Complete Poems (2012), Archie Burnett quotes from a 1951 letter Larkin wrote to his girlfriend Monica Jones while working on “Next, Please”:
“I think it’s just another example of the danger of looking forward to things . . . an attempt to capture my feeling on returning here [i.e., Belfast]: a sense of amazement that what we wait for so long & therefore seems so long in coming shouldn’t take a proportionately long time to pass – instead of zipping away at the same speed as everything else.”
No mention of death. In fact, Larkin makes no overt reference to it until the poem’s final stanza:
“Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.”