Mortality as Muse
L.E. Sissman deserves to be revived.
Now that the baby boomers, who are accustomed to talking in public about every aspect of their private lives, are approaching the end of their long run in the spotlight, it's becoming more and more common to read first-person narratives by writers of all ages about what it feels like to suffer from a terminal illness. Not surprisingly, some people squirm at the thought of reading about such things, and a few actually seem to regard them as inappropriate for general consumption. Earlier this year, Emma Keller wrote a column for the Guardian in which she attacked Lisa Bonchek Adams, a blogger and mother of three who is also a stage-4 cancer patient, suggesting that her courageous postings and tweets were "a grim equivalent of deathbed selfies." Bill Keller, Ms. Keller's husband, backed up his spouse in a New York Times column that dismissed Ms. Adams as "the standard-bearer for an approach to cancer . . . that may raise false hopes."
If, like me, you're an admirer of the writings of such bloggers as Ms. Adams and D.G. Myers, a literary critic who is chronicling his own experiences with prostate cancer, you will doubtless find what the Kellers wrote to be—to put it very, very gently—insensitive. But in my own case, it also put me in mind of a near-forgotten American poet of great gifts whose subject matter included the prospect of his own fast-approaching death.
L.E. Sissman isn't even a name to most modern-day readers, but a modest number of people can recall his brief vogue, which lasted for a bit more than a decade. Mr. Sissman, known to his friends as "Ed," was an advertising man from Boston who in his spare time wrote poems, book reviews and familiar essays that appeared regularly in The Atlantic and The New Yorker between 1964 and his death in 1976. He learned in 1965 that he had Hodgkin's disease, and his first book of poems, "Dying: An Introduction," which came out in 1968, is most striking—harrowing, in fact—when it deals with the illness that killed him at the unripe age of 48: "'But be glad / These things are treatable today,' I'm told. / 'Why, fifteen years ago—' a dark and grave- / Shaped pause. 'But now, a course of radiation, and'— / Sun rays break through. 'And if you want X-ray, / You've come to the right place.'"
Cancer was discussed frankly in print far less often when the title poem of "Dying: An Introduction" appeared in The New Yorker in 1967, which is one reason why Mr. Sissman's work was so widely noticed at the time. But his modest renown didn't outlive his death, and not even the posthumous publication of "Night Music," a collection of his poetry that came out in 1999, was able to restore it.
Yet Mr. Sissman's poems are both stunning and disquieting. Their crisply rhyming iambs were a perfect embodiment of the highly individual sensibility of a poet-businessman who looked his fate in the eye without blinking. In "A Deathplace," for instance, he envisioned his ultimate demise: "Then one fine day when all the smart flags flap, / 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." That seems to me at least as good as "Aubade," Philip Larkin's 1977 poem about his fear of death, not to mention braver. Like all of Mr. Sissman's best poems, it's utterly free of sentimentality and (unlikely as it may sound) coolly witty in its unswerving acceptance of the inevitability of the dark encounter that awaits us all.
While Mr. Sissman was also an accomplished essayist, it is his poetry that most deserves to be revived, though I wouldn't bet that it will be. The hard clarity with which he gazes into the abyss—and that, I have no doubt, is what he expected to find at the end of his own foreshortened road—is exceedingly hard to take if you're the kind of person who, like most of us, prefers to think about something else.
So why read him now? John Updike put it well in his New Yorker obituary: "One said goodbye to Ed wondering each time if it would be the last time. It marks the quality of the man that this shadow became something pleasant: an extra resonance in the parting smile, a warmth in the handshake. He helped us all, in his work and in his courage, to bear our own mortality." He still does, as do Ms. Adams and Mr. Myers, whose willingness to write with equal honesty should inspire all of those who grapple with the common dilemma, whether its coming be imminent or merely prospective.
Ms. Adams has spoken of her "dogged commitment to always be strong with an enthusiasm for life" and to "make sure that what I'm doing isn't waiting around to die." Out of no less dogged a commitment, L.E. Sissman made art of the highest quality. Such a feat, which borders on the alchemical, should be remembered and celebrated permanently.