In a tragically shortened career, L. E. Sissman managed to create a substantial, if not major, body of work that illustrates the way in which very traditional forms can be harnessed to intensely autobiographical, often mundane material to produce poetry of a high order. Confronted in his late thirties by death as an immediate, oppressive reality—“Very few people know where they will die,/ but I do: in a brick-faced hospital”—his verses dwell, too excessively at times, on the clinical details of standard medical procedures, hospital dramas, burnishing them with wit, irony, and a sheen of erudite lyricism: “My awesome, glossy x-rays lay me bare/ In whited spaces: my skull glows like a moon/ Hewn, like a button, out of vivid bone” (“Hello, Darkness”).
Sissman was both modest and precise about his aesthetic stance: “I write traditional, scanning, stanzaic verse, with special emphasis on iambic pentameter and the couplet.” However, this adamantly conservative commitment to conventional techniques, which included a playful tendency to paraphrase admired contemporaries and past masters in his work, was fused with a refreshing willingness to take advantage of the new thematic freedom featured in the confessional lyrics of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, fellow New Englanders who also favored, in the main, a formalist style. Consequently, despite an early, lifelong allegiance to W. H. Auden and that poet’s deft merger of private experience and public commentary, Sissman’s best poetry, at its peak when contemplating family history or imminent personal dissolution, depends heavily on a sense of autobiographical exactitude and diary-like fidelity to realistic detail, however fictional or transfigured.
In line with John Donne’s and Andrew Marvell’s ventures in the same area, seduction was another subject that seemed to elicit Sissman’s strongest efforts, as in “In and Out: A Home Away from Home, 1947” and the punning “Pursuit of Honor,” but the poems most likely to endure are those keyed to the pressure of a terminal illness, poems such as “Dying: An Introduction,” “A Deathplace,” and the harrowing “Hello, Darkness” sequence, where all the impressive resources of the poet are thrown into battle against the hovering specter of oblivion. Other poems have their charms and moments of undeniable power, among them “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” an elegy for a half-brother, but these too frequently dissipate their emotive energies at crucial moments, as well as their author’s gift for clever metaphors, by retreating into self-indulgent pyrotechnics, piled-up images, literary distractions, and the kind of preciousness that can result when laboring with received modes without firm control.
Neither pioneer nor genius, Sissman’s main contribution lay in the production of a series of skillful narrative and lyric poems that chronicle, with wit and grace, a single life’s unfolding dimensions, a body of verse that should, as X. J. Kennedy has suggested in his perceptive and touching retrospective for Parnassus (Fall/Winter, 1979), be read as “one enormous poem: an effort to recapture his past, interpret it, fix it, set it in order.” This represents a significant achievement, if only as a reminder that poetry’s essential humanity still wells from just such a constant reification of ordinary existence for communal benefit.
Aside from the title poem of Dying, which has the fear of death behind its fierce drive, the poetry in L. E. Sissman’s first collection rarely manages to attain the kind of intensity that generates first-class art. Confessedly obsessed with the challenge of using difficult forms, such as villanelles and canzonis, in a language where there is a relative paucity of rhymes, the poet’s devices, many of them clever, draw too much attention to themselves, as in the playful “Just a Whack at Empson,” where at least the subject matter suits its light verse jacket: “Each greening apple has its browning spot:/ The rank of every poet is well-known.” The pun on Browning and its shrewd denial of Empson’s offensive sentence in the second line demonstrate the delightful talent for apt connections and sly technical tricks that are evident throughout Dying.
When dealing with more serious matters, however, the habitual resort to puns and obtrusive rhymes, to endless tag lines from other poets and ceaseless amplification of tropes, can create a humorous detachment that destroys the poem’s quest for transcendence, even as it wins the reader’s admiration. In “Two Encounters,” for example, which is divided into halves, “At the Inn, 1947” and “At the Fair, 1967,” stressing Sissman’s concentration on a scrapbook past and his love of William Wordsworth, the opening lines exemplify the strengths and limitations of such a modus operandi:
Your mink scarf smells as if it smoked cigars,And soot clings in the corners of your eyes,And cold has cancelled your pale cheeks in red,And you stand faintly in a veil of Joy.
The list continues, affirming Sissman’s habit of never knowing when enough is enough, and the tenor of the lines, arch images of a cigar-smoking dead mink and cheeks stamped by red ink, establishes a mood of youthful insouciance appropriate to the time and place, the speaker’s undergraduate days—aided by the borrowing from Randall Jarrell—but in the “altered circumstances” of meeting his “Dark lady of a dozen sonnets” twenty years later, the tone is capable of evoking rue, nothing deeper, even though the ending is salvaged by a beautiful closing on a Ferris wheel: “To hold your airborne arm/ Twenty years later is to ride the calm/ World’s rim against the gravity of time.”
“Two Encounters” is a good poem, generally successful in what it attempts and accomplishes, yet the very nature of its professional performance, its studied self-consciousness, appears to preclude leaps into the sublime. It favors, instead, literature over life, in the sense that risks—of self, of comprehension—are usually avoided, and felt responses are tuned to a distancing knowledge of other poets, other poems, so that poems titled “Peg Finnan’s Wake in Inman Square” and “Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the Spring” are inescapable presences, inviting possibly fatal separations between experience and artifice. Even in “Parents in Winter,” where the portraits of his mother and father might be expected to tap richer feeling, Sissman cannot resist ending “Mother at the Palace, 1914” with coy echoes: “And winning the Bach prize, and having sowed/ Such seeds and oats, at last to marriage./ And so to me? But that’s another story.”
Only in “Dying: An Introduction,” the title poem to his collection, do Sissman’s narrative gift and comic reflexes find an appropriate vehicle, the wry perspective of the persona accentuating the tension supplied by the bleak situation, which involves three visits to the doctor, once for an examination, the second time to have a slice of a dangerous lump removed for a biopsy, and the third visit to hear the dreaded results: cancer of the lymph nodes or Hodgkin’s disease. Divided into five sections, the poem moves from “Summer still plays across the street” to the last section’s November setting, which, ironically, has “a thick smell of spring,” heightened by laughing “college girls” parading in “ones and twos” and “twos and threes” down the street. The previous section’s humorous details—“One Punch and two/ Times later comes the call” in the waiting room, culminating in “one Life further on”—resolves into a series of lean lines that melds unaccustomed spring awareness with memory (of a young sexual episode) and meditative slowness, the autumn world viewed through a new veil of “finity”
As, oddly, not as sombreAs December,But as greenAs anything:As spring.
Death’s grip, “mixing memory and desire,” to quote from T. S. Eliot, a Sissman favorite, has instilled new life.
In many ways, Scattered Returns is a duplicate of Dying—the same folio of charming, witty, often facile versifications of vagrant experience and recovered “spots of time,” perceived, as usual, through a net of literary associations—the third poem in the title sequence is “Three Derivative Poems,” inspired by T. S. Eliot.
To match the starkness of “Dying: An Introduction,” there is “A Deathplace,” which foretells: “A booted man in black with a peaked cap/ Will call for me and troll me down the hall/ And slot me into his black car. That’s all.” Assisted by monosyllabic deliberateness, the simple diction and matter-of-fact attitude underlines the fearful banality of death’s impact, its routine quality to others, while the terse last sentence simulates its abrupt finality. Unfortunately, the sequence itself climaxes with “Sonatina: Hospital,” which represents Sissman at his precious worst, straining after a sardonic conceit that eludes sought-for reverberations.
The sole thematic difference between Scattered Returns and Dying might be seen in the ambitious sequence, “A War Requiem,” that concludes the former. Composed in 1969, a year after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, when antiwar feelings were reaching fever pitch, the sequence contains...
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