Wednesday, February 13, 2008


I have just discovered L.E. Sissman, through reading Violet Weingarten's Intimations of Mortality, (a "testament of courage and dignity, of life prevailing over death.") A fine book,--alas! published after her death. Sissman, dying of Hodgekin's Disease, was a poet, and had been a reviewer for the New Yorker, and wrote a monthly column for the Atlantic. The book, Hello, Darkness, contains 134 of his poems, which the jacket says, were "inspired" by his illness. "There is a powerful rage to live," says the jacket, "even in the face of death." There is also a lot of "suffering of an unpicturesque kind--the kind that takes place in hospitals--which Sissman had a remarkable gift for picturing."

Ah, yes. I remember well "the pinpoint of the least syringe," and the "buttered catheter," and the IV's "lisp and drip," and the "Malignant plum" that "turns out to end in -oma." Ah, yes. He, too, saw forever after through an "invisible new veil of finity." Forever after being something akin to ten years or so. Given the extra decade, he "wrote like one possessed of a knowledge remote from most of us, the knowledge of real time."

Today is really lovely. The snow is melting, the air is warm. There are birds. The boys and I go Indian-file through a hole in the fence to the store, buy hot dogs and potato chips for a picnic, of sorts, in the park. They swing and slide, run and die from invisible and unbloody laser-sword wounds, and rise and run again. Today is an UP. I feel good. I munch on Bar-B-Q chips and read Sissman:

I find you guilty of possession of
The mortal spirit of unstinted love
For all things animate and otherwise,
And of the fatal talent to devise
Live poems expressing it, transcending all
Obituaries which record your fall.


Another picnic, years ago. I am five years old. My grandmother is still alive. SHe is here, with her long red hair wrapped around her head in a circle of braids. My grandfather has a bottle of Four Roses to keep him company. He sits apart from the rest of us and hums comfortably to himself. In ten years they will both be gone. But today it is alright. Today is fine. Tomorrow we will all go our several ways, but today we are all together again. Papa cooks hamburgers over an open fire. Blue smoke rises high into the air. Mama helps Grandma with the lemonade and potato salad. My big brother Gaylen, who is fifteen this year, climbs out of the river, says he won't go in again, that the water's too
cold. He lies on a wide, warm rock to dry out like a lizard in the sun.

Wild blackberries grow all along the river's edge. The water sparkles. I throw little rocks into the water and the circles of ripples widen and run together. I step off the bank and wade out until the cold water is up to my knees. Little silver shivers dance like ripples up my backbone. Mother calls me to come back. I turn toward the shore and step off into a deep hole. The cold water closes over my head. Water is in my nose, in my mouth and ears. I can't see, or breathe, or think. I can't call out. I can only sputter and cough and flail my arms helplessly.

My big brother comes in after me. I gasp and cling to his neck. When we are safely back on shore, he says, "If you'd a been in the air instead of in the water, you'd a been flying!"

(Excerpt from CHRYSALIS)



Jo said...

Beautiful writing. You know I have the book right? It is next up to be read (I had a huge stack to get through and I'm very anal about sequencing, laughing, but I will be back to tell you what I think).

chiefbiscuit said...

Beautiful. I tried to get a copy of this book but couldn't. Are you going to write another - or working on another? You should be - you are a gifted writer.

Pam said...

I am captivated by your writing, your flow of words. You have such a gift.