The 134 poems in Hello, Darkness pain as often as they delight, and sometimes the delight arises directly from the pain. Unfortunately, many readers of contemporary poetry will never discover the pain or the delight in L. E. Sissman’s work, for they will be unwilling, or unable, to penetrate his dense textures or to hear the subtleties of his rhythms. Sissman’s erudition and his passionate commitment to craft combined to enable him to produce perhaps fifty poems important enough to stand with the best of his time.
Sissman wrote nearly all the poems in Hello, Darkness in a single, intensely lived decade. The book contains the texts of Sissman’s three earlier books, and concludes with a “Posthumous Collection” of thirty-nine poems. The poet’s friend and editor Peter Davison, aided by the poet’s widow Anne Sissman, and writer friend John Updike, selected the poems for the posthumous collection. Davison has written a Preface for Hello, Darkness in which he provides the main lines of Sissman’s short life and evaluates his friend’s poetic achievement.
As early as 1963, Sissman was compiling a book of poems to be called Homage to Cambridge; that book never appeared, for the poet discovered a far grander, far more immediate theme than celebration of his adoptive city and his days at Harvard. That theme was his own death. After learning in the autumn of 1965 that he had Hodgkin’s disease, the poet (in Peter Davison’s words) “for the rest of his life wrote like one possessed of a knowledge remote from most of us, the knowledge of real time.” The bulk of Sissman’s collected poetry—all but ten poems—came between that time and 1974. Other work not collected here is on deposit at Harvard.
Born in Chicago in 1928, Sissman at the age of seventeen went to Harvard, where he initially failed to prove himself academically, but later, after a time out of school, was graduated cum laude. Discovering his talent in advertising, Sissman made a lucrative career for himself in Boston. After diagnosis of his terminal illness, he retained his advertising post and, in addition to his poetry, began contributing a regular column to Atlantic Monthly, later collected in book form under the title Innocent Bystander (1975).
Before his death in 1976, Sissman collected significant honors in recognition of his poetry. Perhaps the most important to him was the invitation to be Phi Beta Kappa Poet at Harvard in 1971. For the most part, however, Sissman’s work falls outside the supposed mainstream of his most active years; his work strikes many poets and critics as bookish and mannered. Certainly, Sissman’s work makes no concession to the demands for open forms and spontaneity of statement fashionable in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. His work makes its own terms, and though Peter Davison is right when he says that the poet’s writing after 1965 “only apparently resembled the thickly textured formalities of his undergraduate writing,” the words “thickly textured” and “formal” characterize Sissman—at his best and worst.
Sissman writes, in part, from the experience of “Dislocation,” which Davison says affected an entire generation. Dislocation is important in Sissman’s best poems, but historical forces are not always responsible for the dislocation. Sissman’s sensitive powers of observation permit him to capture a generation’s—perhaps an age’s—dislocation, yet one feels that the world would never have cohered for him, no matter when he had lived. The artist’s need to discover meaning in form has never made for conformity, or adjustment.
The best poems in Sissman’s “Posthumous Collection” extend the mortal concerns he announced in his first book, Dying: An Introduction. Like the earlier books, the posthumous collection combines the trivial with the significant in disturbingly jarring ways. One wishes that Peter Davison had decided to violate the usual conventions of “collecting” a poet’s work and had put together instead a thematically ordered collection called Hello, Darkness: The Best of L. E. Sissman.
No one reading for the first time the poems with which Dying: An Introduction opens is likely to suspect the power of which Sissman will prove capable in his title poem and the one which follows it at the end of the book. Those poems had to come last, for their impact would have blunted anything which followed. Strangely enough, the poems evoking Cambridge, college days, parents, and early loves betray far more self-indulgence that do the poems about the poet’s impending death. The echoes of Eliot—when they are only echoes—do little for the poems, and annoy the reader who recognizes them. A poem with a title like “Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the Spring” announces itself as a period piece.
But from such unpromising beginnings, Dying: An Introduction takes the reader to the richly textured, honestly motivated poem called “The Marschallin, Joy Street, July 3, 1949,” the evocative power of which goes beyond the literarily allusive or topical concerns of some other poems. Sometimes gently, sometimes whimsically, this poem allows the reader to discern the pathos of passing time, and, quietly dramatic, it suggests the emptiness of apparently full lives. The poem’s dramatic center emerges as both general and particular, and the skill of the verse amplifies the portrait of the woman who haunts the lines. At the end, the act of going “belowstairs . . . /To put her windows down against the rain” sums up the lifetime of coping everyone must face.
Dying: An Introduction is composed of five sections, each laconically titled and progressing from the poet’s initial medical examination, through medical testing and pathology reports, to knowledge. Two lines from Philip Larkin, serve as epigraph: “Always too eager for future, we/Pick up bad habits of expectancy.” The lines are quietly prophetic, and serve a function quite different from the kind of epigraph which provides the information on which the poet has built his work. The first section is called “Ring and Walk In”—a marvelously low-key beginning for what will be a drama of life and death. Section II echoes in all our ears; “Probably Nothing,” it is called: the usual medical encouragement to the probably dying patient. Section III, “O.P.O.R.,” dramatizes the taking of bone marrow for testing, and Section IV, “Path. Report,” brings intimations of X-ray treatment and the death to come.
The poem’s final section is called “Outbound,” and Sissman here allows his concern for form to give way, in its technical sense, to a larger sense of form. The lines taper down to knife points, and the poet brings together his past, his present, and his future. In what looks for Sissman shockingly like free verse, he writes: “Through my/Invisible new veil/Of finity, I see/November’s world—/Low scud, slick street, three giggling girls.” The poet finds this, “oddly, not as sombre/As December,/But as green/As anything:/As spring.”
“Canzone: Aubade” closes Dying: An Introduction with a restatement of what has been learned: “All of our love must go the same old way.” And, later, “memory at noon/Springs on us all the secrets that we know/About ourselves, to try if we can know/The agony of aloneness.” The poem’s envoy is both bleak and promising, for it tells us that “though our pain persists in sleeping still,/It will arise and flourish at high noon.” Furious and constant, the poet tells us, our pain will “seek to find a way/Out of our time, the only one we know.”
Sissman’s second book, Scattered Returns (1969), is less uneven than his first, but the trivia of poems such as “Small Space” annoys as exquisitely as a chipped tooth. A poet as conscious of his tools as Sissman has no business trading on the inanities of such doggerel. What might be amusing in another context annoys when dropped into a book which opens with a poem like the devastating “A Deathplace.” This is not to deny the validity of juxtaposing light verse with statements of a larger sort: still, the parody which sneers on one level and, at another level, panders to elitist taste has no business in a serious book. “Make these three/Mistakes in speech?” Sissman asks in allcapital letters. “Hear them mermaids/On the beach,” he asks, “Singing real low/Each to each?” Then, by way of coup de grace, “Had I ought to/eat a peach?” The vulgar may be with us always, but summoning them up ought not to require textbook allusiveness.
Scattered Returns opens with an epigraph and with a dedication to Howard Moss, poetry editor of the New Yorker. The “highest artist,” says the epigraph, “grapples up his art one-handed,” while the other hand “reaches out/To those below him” in a “grasp of love.” Some of the poems which follow measure up to the high-minded ideal. Others do...
(The entire section is 3715 words.)