Sunday, January 28, 2018

`Until My Visas Wither'

Tony Peyser has little of interest to say about L.E. Sissman, but it’s reassuring to know someone remembers the poet who died at age forty-eight. He’s the sort of poet, like Larkin and Wilbur, whose lines lend themselves to effortless memorization. It’s not just the musicality, though Sissman wrote poems you can sing. It’s his sense of familiarity with life as we live it. Sissman’s poems, like Larkin’s and Wilbur’s, inspire trust. Their bullshit quota approaches zero, rare in recent American poetry, yet Sissman is no blustering cynic. Cancer dogged him for the final decade of his life, the years during which he turned himself into one of American poetry’s great life-celebrators, without being fatuously self-congratulatory about it. Sissman’s poems, even the ones about death, are exuberant.

“Homage to Clotho: A Hospital Suite” was published posthumously in his collected poems, Hello, Darkness (1978). Sissman often wrote suites of poems, as his punning title suggests. One needn’t have cancer or know someone who does to appreciate the wit and craft. This was not poetry written by a victim, for victims. It was written by an adult, that endangered species, for adults. Clotho, for the Greeks, was the youngest of the Fates, who spun the threads of life for all mortals. 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.”

I’m reminded of Larkin’s “Ambulances”: “the solving emptiness / That lies just under all we do.” My friend David Myers and I met in person only once, in March 2012, in a Mexican restaurant in Houston. Sissman was one of the writers who brought us together when David started A Commonplace Blog in 2008. He was already sick with the cancer that would kill him in September 2014. Over salsa and chips we fumbled through the opening of “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.”

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