Saturday, December 31, 2016

`Much Like Saxifrage Breaking a Wall'

In my circle, New Year’s Eve was known as Amateur’s Night, the one time each year when hobbyist drinkers indulged in what they imagined was depraved Bacchanalia. It was a grim spectacle. I remember one Dec. 31 in Boston seeing half a dozen women leaning against the wall in an alley, all moaning and vomiting, and it wasn’t yet midnight. Proficient drinking, as with writing sonnets or mastering Chopin’s etudes, calls for discipline and years of practice. Now I stay home and wake up without a hangover. In his first collection, Dying: An Introduction (1968), L.E. Sissman includes a sequence of four sonnets, “The Tree Warden.” The third is “December Thirty-First”:

“The days drew in this fall with infinite art,
Making minutely earlier the stroke
Of night each evening, muting what awoke
Us later every morning: the red heart

“Of sun. December's miniature day
Is borne out on its stretcher to be hung,
Dim, minor, and derivative, among
Great august canvases now locked away.

“Opposed to dated day, the modern moon
Comes up to demonstrate its graphic skill:
Laying its white-on-white on with a will,
Its backward prism makes a monotone.

“In the New Year, night after night will wane;
Color will conquer; art will be long again.”

That’s a Senecan spirit of hopefulness I can live with, especially coming from Sissman, who died much too soon, of cancer, at age forty-eight. For readers, the memorable death of 2016 was Geoffrey Hill’s. The leading poet of the age died June 30 at age eight-four. In the seventh section of Clavics (Enitharmon Press, 2011), he too reminds us that “art will be long again”:

“The enabling reader, the recusant
At my fingertips, for whom I write well
Into my scant-
Extended age
This ritual
Taking its toll
Much like saxifrage
Breaking a wall”

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