Sunday, May 27, 2018

'A Tangential Line Lifting,Straight as a Contrail'

A friend, long a devotee of exercise and prudent diet, has been diagnosed with diabetes. He was not surprised. He’s known since childhood it ran in his family. “The disease killed my father at age 58,” he writes. “It killed five of his siblings. It has killed six of my first cousins. Doing what it does best: taking a toe, then a foot, then a leg, then a life.” My friend’s reaction to the news: he takes his medication, follows an even stricter diet, resolves to lose a few pounds and, as a bookish fellow, he reads L.E. Sissman. On learning of the diagnosis, he pulled down Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman (1978). Coincidentally, just last week I found a first edition of it in a Houston bookstore and bought it to replace my paperback copy which was held together with a rubber band. Sissman is a poet who gets a lot of hard use from some of us.

Sissman died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1976 at age forty-eight. He is our laurate of cancer, and my friend David Myers, claimed by that disease in 2014, read him devotedly, as a sort of guide to the territory ahead. My friend with diabetes went to the “Posthumous Collection” of Hello, Darkness, and quoted in his email to me the concluding lines of “Homage to Clotho: A Hospital Suite.” Here is how the poem begins:

“Nowhere is all around us, pressureless,
A vacuum waiting for a rupture in
The tegument, a puncture in the skin, 
To pass inside without a password and
Implode us into Erewhon.”

In recent years there has been a vogue among writers for cancer memoirs. I understand the impulse and don’t wish to judge the authors. Sissman writes about disease and death with the same elegance and wit that he deployed when writing about Harvard, Edward Hopper, his wife and Evelyn Waugh. He acknowledges the temptation to indulge in self-pity, but never succumbs. He is not noble, merely formal and cool. Sissman also wrote essays for The Atlantic Monthly, some of which were collected in Innocent Bystander: The Scene From the 70’s. Here too he wrote about cancer in a manner that is touchingly personal yet decorous. This is from the conclusion of a two-part essay titled “A Little Night Music,” published in 1972:

“Time. It is now two years since my last illness. The latest X rays and blood tests are perfectly normal. I’m doing fine, the doctors say. I have a year to go. Early in 1973, if all continues well, I’ll almost certainly be absolved of the disease. These are strange days and no unhappy ones. I’m building up my gambler’s stack of one-month chips in front of me; when I have thirty-six, I will have won the game. Meanwhile, not knowing yet quite what literary use (if any) I will make of it, I have been looking down at the curvature of the earth, at the trajectory of my life and death, from a new perspective: from the perspective of a tangential line lifting, straight as a contrail, away from the earth and myself and all other things and people. It is, and has been, a lonely journey. But so, if we only knew it, is every life.”

The expression of hope is heart-breaking. For the last two years of his life, Sissman was unable to write poetry or much of anything else.

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