NOVEMBER 14, 2019
A PROSE POEM in Charles Simic’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize–winning volume The World Doesn’t End begins:
The time of minor poets is coming. Good-by Whitman, Dickinson, Frost. Welcome you whose fame will never reach beyond your closest family, and perhaps one or two good friends gathered after dinner over a jug of fierce red wine … while the children are falling asleep and complaining about the noise you’re making as you rummage through the closets for your old poems, afraid your wife might’ve thrown them out with last spring’s cleaning.
I’m not sure just how many “minor” poets Simic had in mind in the late 1980s, before social media enabled the proliferation of all manner of poets and poetasters. And, of course, what constitutes a minor as opposed to a major writer is a subjective, even a moot, consideration. Nonetheless, important poets are indeed under-read, inadequately appreciated, or simply forgotten for myriad reasons, not the least of which is the ever-changing Zeitgeist. And sometimes it’s just a matter of bad luck — of careers cut short by unforeseen circumstances, including untimely death. This was the case with the two poets under consideration here.
Louis Edward Sissman was born in 1928 in Detroit, Michigan, and died in 1976, at 48, from complications of Hodgkin lymphoma. Though a late-bloomer in terms of poetry publication (he turned 40 when his first collection, Dying: An Introduction, was at press), he was something of a prodigy, winning a national spelling bee in his youth and entering Harvard at 16. He wrote poetry as a young person — Harvard named him Class Poet of his cohort — but the exigencies of family life and of a rewarding and successful career in advertising protracted his debut in print. Shortly after he’d begun to prepare his first manuscript of poems, he was diagnosed with cancer. That diagnosis would provide a kind of road-to-Damascus jolt for Sissman, and the three books of poems he published between then and his death 12 years later would all be colored by his acute awareness of Time’s wingèd chariot.
Sissman was hardly unknown as a poet while he lived, publishing poetry and reviews in places like The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic Monthly, as well as garnering important awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship (1968) and, posthumously, the National Book Critics Circle Award (1978) for his Collected Poems, edited and introduced by Peter Davison. When that last volume appeared, William Pritchard, writing in the Times Literary Supplement, called it “a major event in the history of recent American poetry; for in it L. E. Sissman emerges as a most interesting poet and surely the most undervalued of those who began their careers in the 1960s.” And yet who is reading L. E. Sissman now?
Dying, an Introduction (1968), Sissman’s first collection, contains — as many first collections do — a number of early poems, poems presumably written before his cancer diagnosis, and many of these (although impressively nimble in their uses of blank verse, rhyming couplets, and fixed forms like the villanelle) are rather patrician and mild; they are ironically urbane on the subjects of college life in the Ivy League, the idea of “home” and relations with parents, long-shanked and ruby-lipped Bryn Mawr girls seen on trains, escapades on Cape Cod, and the romance and allure of Northeastern cities — especially New York, Boston, Cambridge — for a precocious Midwestern transplant. The poems are full of literary allusions (Yeats, Eliot, Graves, and others) and phrases from Latin. They are learned, a little naughty, and cultured — very Audenesque, Lowellian. One sees why Updike, among others, so admired him.
Then something happens in the last three poems that signals the coming power of the second book. The antepenultimate, “Love-Making; April; Middle Age,” is a sonnet with an extra line, as though the speaker were defying formal closure and buying time, inspired by an unlooked-for love affair at midlife. The poem ends with evening light “that dusts your eyes and mine with age. // We turn our thirties over like a page.” The title poem comes next, and is an unflinching recounting, in five parts, of how the speaker learns that he has a fatal illness. Sissman turns his gift for form (syllabics, rhyme) and wry description toward difficult, serious news:
Like hummingbirds, syringes tap
The novocaine and sting my thigh
To sleep, and the swordplay begins.
The stainless-modern knife digs in —
Meticulous trencherman — and twangs
A tendon faintly.
After he’s heard his pathology report, the speaker heads home:
Invisible new veil
Of finity, I see
November’s world —
Low scud, slick street, three giggling girls —
As, oddly, not as somber
But as green
The last poem is an aubade suffused with the “urgencies of afternoon” and of the “dead-white end of the dark road we know.” The poem’s Envoy is a bellwether of the poems to come in book two:
At last, alas! day is born out night,
And, though our pain persists in sleeping still,
It will arise and flourish at high noon,
And furious, constant, seek to find a way
Out of our time, the only one we know.
Sissman’s second collection, Scattered Returns, was published the following year. It is shorter than the first by 10 poems and 30 pages, and cuts to the chase. The first poem in the book, “A Deathplace,” begins: “Very few people know where they will die, / But I do.” With a few exceptions (the title poem, for one, which Sissman himself calls “derivative,” with its shout-out to Eliot, adolescence, and “a drab Radcliffe girl who knew I wrote / And whom I helped into her fur-trimmed coat”), gone are the nostalgia-fueled, New Yorker–y cultural and travel sketches. Though the poems are still darkly witty, formally dexterous, and often profoundly perceptive, nearly all “academic” artifice and throwback archaisms have been replaced by a forthright, often blunt urgency (catheters, bad waiting rooms, the indignities of illness) that is nonetheless devoid of self-pity or bathos. There are, true, a great many allusions to other poets and writers — most (all?) of them men — including Patrick Kavanagh, Donald Justice, Walt Whitman, and Evelyn Waugh. The tone here is elegiac, fierce, as in the parodic meta-sonnet “Upon Finding Dying: An Introduction, by L. E. Sissman, Remaindered at Is”:
I wandered lonely as a cloud in Foyles
Of incandescent, tight-knit air, when I
Spied a remainder counter, pied as a
Meadow in autumn with the relicts of
A foisonous summer: novels all the Réage
Short weeks ago, now smutched with rusts and rots
Upon their colored calyces; memoirs
Of august personages laid to rest
As early as October; ghosts of Mod
Nonce-figures, once in, now as dead as God;
And there, a snip under a blackleg sign,
“These books reduced to 1s/,” there is mine,
Dying: An Introduction. Well, if you
Preach about dying, you must practice, too.
In this poem, we see Sissman rejecting the transcendence of Romanticism, its bromance with oblivion, and yet refusing, too, the abjection of the Modernists on whom he cut his teeth. The pieces in this collection “visit chaos,” as he puts it in the title of another poem: the chaos of aging, of forgetting, of dying. There are homages. There are elegies. A long coda of a poem, “A War Requiem,” offers a kind of chronological, calendrical, and autobiographical foray that commences in 1929, the year after Sissman was born, and closes with a New Year’s poem dated 1969, the year the second volume appeared. During the course of this careen, the speaker takes in everything from marriage, political assassinations, and the travesty of the Vietnam War. In the last poem in this series, which also closes the collection, the speaker is snowbound at home on Twelfth Night (January 6). Watching a weak sun descend over the deep snow outside his window, the speaker says,
Out in my hideout from the memory
Of our unlovely recent history,
And of those fresh divisions just gone west.
A sharp sound brings me back: perhaps a tree
Cleft by the cold, but likelier the crack
Of a gun down at Devens. Snow begins
To lance against the window, and I see,
By luck, a leisurely and murderous
Shadow detach itself with a marine
Grace from an apple tree. A snowy owl,
Cinereous, nearly invisible,
Planes down its glide path to surprise a vole.
Twelfth Night is, in the Christian liturgical calendar, Epiphany. The date marks the end of the Christmas season, and the word itself means “showing forth,” “manifestation,” or “revelation.” This beautiful poem — unsentimental, suffused with perceptive and accepting quiescence — is a testament to the strange “luck” of being and bearing witness to the world in all its mortal human and animal grace.
Lynn Martin, whose second collection, Shiver, was published posthumously earlier this year by Tender Buttons Press, died of cancer in 2016 at the age of 58. Unlike Sissman, Martin flew far below the national po-biz radar, and she appeared to be just fine with that. Born in the Bronx in 1957, she traveled as a young adult around the United States and Mexico, joined the Twin Oaks commune in Virginia, bartended in New Orleans, and held several construction jobs in Boston and the DC area before finally settling down in Nelson County, Virginia. While making her living as a carpenter, she earned her bachelor’s from Sweet Briar College, where she worked with the poet Mary Oliver. She then received a MEd from Lynchburg College and became a special education teacher. And although she published a first book, 14 Bobbypins in a 50 Mile Radius, with a small press in 1987 and placed poems in well-known journals such as Poetry Northwest, Southern Poetry Review, and Poetry East, her “career” as a poet seems to have been for her a seamless part of her life in her mountain community and environs, where she often performed poetry with local musicians. Her second collection, Shiver, was gathered after Martin’s death by poet friends and the editors at Tender Buttons.
One difficulty with small press publication is spotty distribution (though SPD Books does a heroic and important job of getting small press books into the hands of readers), lack of ready availability, and inadequate review coverage. Even Martin’s surviving partner was unable to put her hands on Lynn’s first book (it was in the attic, a version of Simic’s proverbial “closet,” and unreachable by the partner, who had a broken leg). I was able to obtain a copy from a friend of Martin’s, and was struck, as I was with Sissman’s first and second books, by the ways in which a serious diagnosis seems to have shaped her later poems, strengthening and deepening them.
On most counts, Sissman and Martin are worlds apart as poets, and their differences extend beyond their dissimilar relationships to the poetry establishment. Whereas Sissman’s style is a polished, (sub)urban, often cosmopolitan mix of literary allusion and cultured informality, Martin’s voice is always straightforward, colloquial, and closely tied to the natural world and the world of work. These subjects — the beauty and sustenance of what Theodore Roethke called “great nature” and the appreciation of the value of “making” — are present in both Martin’s first and second books. But while the first collection owes more, stylistically, to the period in which the poems were presumably written, the late ’70s and early ’80s — as well, at times, to Martin’s teacher Mary Oliver — the poems in the second book represent a great leap away from the heavily enjambed, lowercased, and heavily vernacular stylings of 14 Bobbypins (which is beautifully embodied, with its terrific title and silkscreened covers). Shiver resounds with unadorned clarity, with images like “the twisted trees / have so much to say about the wind” (from “Now, in Late October, I Can See”), “Mist, thick as cream, pools / in the deep cups of the hollows” (from “Skyfish”), and these opening lines of “Siren”:
First, the effervescent hiss
of surf. Then all at once comes
the glistening rubble — pebbles,
unstrung beads of coral and shell,
glass bits like petals, swollen
seeds scatter, bones clatter,
salt shaker. All at once
says the rasping sea.
All at once the sea …
This is a poet deeply acquainted with and attuned to the physical world, and while the poems may at first seem “simple,” their authentic originality haunts and demands rereading. Much like the often overlooked nature writer Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of the poet), whose journals pay scrupulous attention to the smallest details of the world, Martin seems concerned not with inserting herself into the scapes of land and work but rather with recording her encounters with as much honesty and perspicuity as she can muster. Whether writing about hitchhiking, house-building, lovemaking, grieving, or simply walking at night, her main modes are praise and thanksgiving. At times, her familiarity with everything from non-load-bearing plaster walls to the “bleached abandoned vehicle” of a turtle shell is so intensely evoked that the speaker seems to turn into the berries, the rainwater, the trees she is witnessing. A woman chinking a cabin with a mix of horsehair and mud tells herself, “You must think like rain.” Another speaker, watching stars spawn in the surface of a rain barrel, feels her own “blue gilled heart.” A snake-handler in “Carolina Handler” writes:
Flick of the tongue and
she has my scent. We
were never strangers anyway.
We wind like the wild
grapevine — embracing Eden.
When eye to red-eye and
fearlessly we meet,
I am as teeming as
the spring-fed pond.
I am lighter than a skipping stone.
But these poems are not without their shadows. Death is part of the cycle, as we see in “Potomac”:
A faint voice from the riverside
Cries out like a child’s —
High pitched. So you move to it.
Another scream urges you
Deeper into the suburban woods
While your heart utters prayers.
And following the cries
To the water’s edge, you see
The fox — fastened to the wide-eyed fawn.
Turning away is that old grinding circle.
All afternoon the fawn will
Call to you from the fiver,
Even the sexy title poem, “Shiver,” reverberates on the brink to which atonement can take us:
It’s winter in this
where sun and sparrow
are swallowed hole.
A woman lies down,
makes mountains with her body,
gives me her tongue —
wing beat and spark.
And I cling with many fingers
like honeysuckle to rock
rooted to the earth
of this desire.
Always there is “wither and bloom, wither and bloom,” as Martin writes in “Wholly,” an elegy for the dead daughter of friends. In the last poem in the book, “Untitled,” which could be a self-elegy, Martin acknowledges that “[m]y house is so much darker now,” but concludes this way:
Through this window, look.
Late April spring.
Wild pink apple blossom spring. Off
In the woods, a turkey
Take the house
I’ll be out here
Where everything says blurts shouts alive
In On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said explores the way that knowledge of approaching death (“the late or last period of life, the decay of the body, the onset of ill health”) affects the work of musicians, writers, and other artists. Said believes this awareness lends artists “unique qualities of perception and form.” This seems to hold true for both Sissman and Martin, whose late poems move away from irony or mere surfaces to quarrel graciously with time. In the words of Said, they make the “heart visible.” Whether either poet is deemed major or minor seems so much less important than the wisdom the poems in these second books impart. After all, even the late John Ashbery called poetry “a hopelessly minor art.” And as Stephanie Burt wrote in a 2016 article for Partisan, “In Defence of Minor Poets,”
Given the vast expansion of literacy and publishing over the past few decades, even if you believe that the number of major, great, worth-endless-scrutiny poets obeys some sort of law of constancy over time — like the first law of thermodynamics or the rule about Slayers in Buffy (“There can be only one”) — you have to believe the number of interesting, worthwhile, rewarding poets has shot up. Why not try to read more of them? (If you’re a Buffy fan, you may also remember the fate of that rule.)
I hope that readers will be inspired to seek out and read more of the late and significant work of both L. E. Sissman and Lynn Martin.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia. She has published numerous books of poetry, and her latest collection, Orexia, was published in 2017.