Thursday, November 27, 2014

`A Kind of Left-Handed Thanks'

I first saw my name in print in Lit Bits, the high-school literary magazine I edited nearly half a century ago. On my orders, all copies have been burned or pulped. I contributed a poem about which I remember nothing, not even the title, and a sort of prose poem, “November,” written under the sway of my then-favorite writer, Thomas Wolfe. My enthusiasm for Wolfe waned about ten minutes after the magazine went to the printer. I wrote the piece in a never-to-be-repeated gush during an afternoon study hall. I didn’t know the meaning of “revision” or “concision,” and was smitten by my new-found logorrhea. I likened the color of the November sky to tarnished pewter. Some sins are never forgiven.     

In the essay “A Novembrist Manifesto” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s (Vanguard Press, 1975), L.E. Sissman does what I could never have done at age sixteen – writes an appreciation of a much-misunderstood month. Sissman indulges in a bit of purple prose of his own, but soon recovers his head: 

“In the dark day of November, it is often three o’clock in the morning. We sit alone, freshly reminded of our mortal state, in inconsolable judgment on the waning sources of our unfounded pride. Our achievements wither and dry and shrivel to insignificance  until they’d fit the head of a pin; our ego, a summer roarer, now sits, a bad boy, in the dunce’s corner; our petty crimes against ourselves and others now pass in review at regimental strength before our routed-marshal’s eyes.” 

Sissman paraphrases Ishmael. Context deepens understanding. The poet was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1965 and died in 1976 at the age of forty-eight. All of his best poetry and prose is bracketed by those dates. He continues in his November essay: 

“To buoy ourselves up and carry our frail selves through the rising insupportability of life, we take on, through the year, a thick, false costume of defenses crowned with a raffish, reckless, smiling social mask and founded on false pride and false belief in our immortal Geist. In November, all that falls away, and we sit alone with the knowledge of a failing body and a failed mind that has hardly begun to attack its objectives.” 

One need not be dying of cancer to hear the message. November, leafless and cold, encourages a hard look at self. But Sissman doesn’t leave us in a self-punishing state, which would tend to segue nicely into self-pity. Here is his next paragraph: 

“Then, of course—the larder bare, the slate wiped clean—the hope is free to start. Once our attention has been distracted from the screaming, constant claims of self, we can begin again from square one of our humble, real, deflated self. We suddenly have time—for the first time in a year—for pity that is not coextensive with ourselves. We have time to stop taking others for granted or for pawns in our personal politics and to see them, objectively and shamingly, as more steadfast and less self-blandished than we are. We have time to pay our respects, our too-long-deferred tributes, to the people who have sheltered and nurtured us in spite of our pretensions.” 

That Sissman was dead within a few years, that many of his remaining days were anguished, physically and otherwise, when he was no longer able to write poetry, give his expression of gratitude a credence denied those of us who resort to greeting-card rote. “Gratitude is always a matter of paying attention,” Margaret Visser writes in The Gift of Thanks: The Roots and Rituals of Gratitude (2009), “of deliberately beholding and appreciating the other.” Sissman concludes his paean to November with these words: 

“…I welcome it because it will restore me to the company of a friend and companion of my youth who is a virtual stranger now. I mean, of course, myself. And, when I sit down at the end of the long, gray month with that old self and my rediscovered friends and intimates to eat turkey and cornbread stuffing and squash and pumpkin pie, I will offer mentally a kind of left-handed thanks: not the `I’m all right, Jack’ thanks for abundance, but the tentative, self-doubting thanks for the return to normal size and sanity that November brings.”

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