Monday, March 12, 2007

`Pretty Twinklings'

Who reads L.E. Sissman today? Had he not died in 1976 at the appalling age of 48, Sissman might have become a Grand Old Man of American Letters, if such a notion is not already extinct, though his sensibility would have been too ironical to take seriously so exalted a title. Like Wallace Stevens and Charles Ives, Sissman was an artist-in-disguise, a poet in a three-piece suit. He worked in advertising, the bane of sensitive plants, and wrote some of the best mid-century American poems.

He paid the ultimate price in order to write his finest work. In 1965 Sissman was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, and three years later he published his first book, Dying: An Introduction. For 11 years he fought cancer and, until his final year, continued writing poems, many chronicling his disease and impending death, but his work is never mawkish. He didn’t indulge in that dismayingly popular sub-genre, the “victim” poem. Sissman was too urbane to think suffering and death confer nobility. He knew he was facing a commonplace inevitability. This is from “A Deathplace”:

“Very few people know where they will die,
But I do: in a brick-faced hospital,
Divided, not unlike Caesarean Gaul,
Into three parts….”

I’m reminded of what Charles Lamb wrote on Sept. 9, 1826, in a letter to his friend John Bates Dibdin: “The Tyranny of Sickness is nothing to the Cruelty of Convalescence: tis to have Thirty Tyrants for one.”

“Homage to Clotho: A Hospital Suite” was published posthumously in his collected poems, Hello, Darkness. Sissman favored poems written in suites, as his punning title suggests. One need not have cancer or any mortal illness, nor know someone who does, to appreciate Sissman’s wit and craft. Again this is not poetry written by a victim, for victims. For the Greeks, Clotho was the youngest of the Fates, who spun the threads of life for all men and women. Here’s the first movement:

“Nowhere is all around us, pressureless,
A vacuum waiting for rupture in
The tegument, a puncture in the skin,
To pass inside without a password and
Implode us into Erewhon. This room
Is dangerously unguarded: in one wall
An empty elevator clangs its doors,
Imperiously, for fodder; in the hall,
Bare stretchers gape for commerce; in the air
Outside, a trembling, empty brightness falls
In hunger on those whom it would devour
Like any sparrow hawk as darkness falls
And rises silently up the steel stairs
To the eleventh and last floor, where I
Reside on sufferance of authorities
Until my visas wither, and I die.”

Formal mastery offsets nothingness, at least for the length of 16 lines. One of my favorite Sissman poems is “American Light: A Hopper Retrospective,” another suite-poem. This is the first movement:

“A man, a plan, a spandrel touched with fire,
A morning-tinted cornice, a lit spire,
A clapboard gable beetled with the brow-
Shadows of lintels, a glazed vacancy
In shut-up shopfronts, an ineffably
Beautiful emptiness of sunlight in
Bare rooms of which he was the sole inhabitant:
The morning and the evening of his life
Rotated, a lone sun, about the plinth
On which he stood in granite, limned by light
That lasted one day long and then went out.”

In Sissman’s poems there is always exuberance, a spilling over of energy and mind. He doesn’t threaten you, but reminds you that life is the real gift. Again, Lamb comes to mind, this time in a letter he wrote on Nov. 13, 1798, to another friend, Robert Lloyd:

“You say that `this World to you seems drain’d of all its sweets!’ At first I had hoped you only meant to insinuate the high price of Sugar! But I am afraid you meant more. O Robert, I don’t know what you call sweet. Honey and the honeycomb, roses and violets, are yet in the earth. The sun and moon yet reign in Heaven, and the lesser lights keep up their pretty twinklings. Meats and drinks, sweet sights and sweet smells, a country walk, spring and autumn, follies and repentance, quarrels and reconcilements, have all a sweetness by turns. Good humour and good nature, friends at home that love you, and friends abroad that miss you, you possess all these things, and more innumerable, and these are all sweet things….You may extract honey from everything; do not go a gathering after gall. The Bees are wiser in their generation than the race of sonnet writers and complainers, Bowle’s and Charlotte Smiths, and all that tribe, who can see no joys but what are past, and fill people’s heads with notions of the unsatisfying nature of Earthly comforts. I assure you I find this world a very pretty place.”

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