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The Boston Phoenix Death Sentences

L.E. Sissman paid the price

By Graham Christian

MARCH 29, 1999: 

NIGHT MUSIC: POEMS, by L.E. Sissman, selected by Peter Davison. Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin), 160 pages, $14.

Samuel Johnson, who had an opinion for every occasion, once said, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates the mind wonderfully." It is as typical for poets to brood upon death as it is for preachers, but none has ever done so with more justification than Louis Edward Sissman. He spent most of his adult life in Boston and died of Hodgkin's disease in 1976, 11 years after becoming ill. A new selection of his poems from Houghton Mifflin reminds us again how much we gained from his long look into the honest mirror of his death sentence, and how much we lost by his disappearance.

His rich, allusive, swinging style -- what John Updike called his "antic exactitude" -- reveals America in the later 20th century
-- New England in particular -- as a crossroads of respectable folly, mixed results, and insistent memory; he was in verse as effective a chronicler of our time as we have ever had.

Sissman's serious poetry began with an ending -- characteristic of a man who had special claims on the use of irony. His first book of poems was called Dying: An Introduction; his last, published posthumously, was called Hello, Darkness. Some of his influences are to be expected from one of his generation: Eliot, Auden, and Hopkins. But others, as outlined in his essay "The Constant Re-Reader's Five-Foot Shelf," surprise: Dryden, Swift, John Gay, the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Henry Reed, and the war memoirs of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. His poetry, it seems, is a subspecies of war poetry: precise names and moments, hoarded against the next shell-blast, as in these lines from "At the Bar, 1948":

McBride's. Round tables in a cellar off the Square
Give point to your intensive, angular
Embodiment . . . In the Brattle Cab
I realize you're drunk. Arrived, you stab
Your front door with a key and stumble in.
His imagination continued to visit and recreate the Second World War (in which he was not a combatant), as in the complex canvases of the long poems "A War Requiem" and "Love Day, 1945." In his own last battle, he retained the curious objectivity of the observer, the noncombatant. In "A Deathplace," he writes:

Very few people know where they will die,
But I do: in a brick-faced hospital . . .
His method did not alter much over his years of active writing (nor had it, according to Peter Davison, since his first undergraduate efforts), but he shared this trait with Dryden and D'Urfey. Like them, he had an essentially rationalistic sensibility, and fixed the uneasy, shambling world in the calm and centered forms of his verse.

For Sissman, as for W.S. Gilbert or Pope, wit offers the precious illusion of control:

The riddle of the Sphinx. Man walks on three
Legs at the last. I walk on three, one of
Which is a wheeled I.V. pole, when I rise
From bed the first time to make my aged way
To the toilet . . .
-- from "Homage to Clotho: A Hospital Suite"
Like Swift, he saw the greasy excuses and accommodations of the human race, but his compassion was deeper; Swift could not have managed the astonishing mixture of clarity and sympathy that forms Sissman's portrait of an aging society beauty in "The Marschallin, Joy Street, July 3, 1949," and that shapes this account of his mother on her deathbed in "Tras Os Montes":

Ears almost waned to stone, she hears me say,
'Mother, we're here. The two of us are here.
Anne's here with me,' and she says, 'Anne is so --
So pretty,' as if abdicating all
Her principalities of prettiness . . .
How like Sissman, learned and loyal to his kin and his adopted region, in his last and perhaps greatest poem, "Tras Os Montes," at once to memorialize his mother and father (who predeceased him by only a few years) and, looking toward his own death, to recast, perhaps half-unconsciously, William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis": " . . . approach thy grave,/Like one that wraps the drapery of his couch/About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams."

Here is Sissman:

. . . self,
Propelled by its last rays, sways in the sway
Of the last grasses and falls headlong in
The darkness of the dust it is part of
Where the recirculating shaft goes home
Into the breast that armed it for the air,
And, as we must expect, the art that there
Turned our lone hand into imperial Rome
Reverts to earth and its inveterate love
For the inanimate and its return.
Such concentration of the mind, such poetry, as Sissman himself remarked, is "almost worth the price."

Graham Christian is a freelance writer living in Somerville.

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