Louis Edward Sissman
Biography of Louis Edward Sissman
Louis Edward Sissman (January 1, 1928 Detroit – March, 1976) was a poet and advertising executive.
Sissman was raised in Detroit. He went to private schools, and in 1941 he became a national spelling champion. He was a Quiz Kid.
Near the end of World War II Sissman entered Harvard. He was expelled but returned, graduating in 1949 as Class Poet.
In 1950's, he worked at Prentice-Hall as a copyeditor in New York City.
In the 1960s, he worked at odd jobs, including campaigning for John F. Kennedy. Eventually, he was hired by Quinn and Johnson Advertising, in Boston, and he rose to Creative Vice President. He married Anne, and lived in Still River.
In 1965, he discovered he had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He fought the disease for a decade. He wrote book reviews and poems for The New Yorker, monthly columns for the Atlantic, and was published in Harper's Magazine.
His papers are at Harvard University.
Louis Edward Sissman Poems
The Village: The Seasons
(To Saul Touster) I. January 22, 1932 Could a four-year-old look out of a square sedan (A Studebaker Six in currency green With wooden artillery wheels) and see a scene Of snow, light lavender, landing on deepening blue Buildings built out of red-violet bricks, and black Passersby passing by over the widening white Streets darkening blue, under a thickening white Sky suddenly undergoing sheer twilight, And the yellow but whitening streetlights coming on, And remember it now, though the likelihood is gone That it ever happened at all, and the Village is gone That it ever could happen in? Memory, guttering out, Apparently, finally flares up and banishes doubt. II. May 29, 1941 Tring. Bells On grocers' boys' bicycles ring, Followed, on cue, By the jaunty one-note of prayers at two Near churches; taxi horns, a-hunt, Come in for treble; next, the tickety bass Of chain-driven Diamond T's, gone elephantine And stove-enamelled conifer green Down Greenwich Avenue. Out of the Earle I issue at half-past thirteen, Struck, like a floral clock, By seasonal Manifestations: unreasonable N.Y.U. girls out in their bobby socks And rayon blouses; meek boys with their books Who have already moulted mackinaws; Desarrolimiento of New chrome-green leaves; a rose, Got, blooming, out of bed; and Mrs. Roos- Evelt and Sarah Delano Descending the front stoop of a Jamesian House facing south against the Square, the sun— Who, curveting, his half course not yet run, Infects the earth with crescence; And the presence Of process, seen in un-top-hatted, Un-frock-coated burghers and their sons And daughters, taking over All title, right, and interest soever In this, now their Property, Washington Square. III. December 29, 1949 The Hotel Storia ascends Above me and my new wife; ends Eight stories of decline, despair, Iron beds and hand-washed underwear Above us and our leatherette Chattels, still grounded on the wet Grey tessellated lobby floor. Soon, through a dingy, numbered door, We'll enter into our new home, Provincials in Imperial Rome To seek their fortune, or, at least, To find a job. The wedding feast, Digested and metabolized, Diminishes in idealized Group photographs, and hard today Shunts us together and at bay. Outside the soot-webbed window, sleet Scourges the vista of Eighth Street; Inside, the radiators clack And talk and tell us to go back Where we came from. A lone pecan Falls from our lunch, a sticky bun, And bounces on the trampoline Of the torn bedspread. In the mean Distance of winter, a man sighs, A bedstead creaks, a woman cries. IV. July 14, 1951 A summer lull arrives in the West Village, Transmuting houses into silent salvage Of the last century, streets into wreckage Uncalled-for by do-gooders who police The moderniqueness of our ways, patrol The sanitation of the urban soul. What I mean is, devoid of people, all Our dwellings freeze and rust in desuetude, Fur over with untenancy, glaze grey With summer's dust and incivility, With lack of language and engagement, while Their occupants sport, mutate, and transform Themselves, play at dissembling the god Norm From forward bases at Fire Island. But— Exception proving rules, dissolving doubt— Young Gordon Walker, fledgling editor, My daylong colleague in the corridors Of Power & Leicht, the trade-book publishers, Is at home to the residue in his Acute apartment in an angle of Abingdon Square. And they're all there, the rear- Guard of the garrison of Fort New York: The skeleton defense of skinny girls Who tap the typewriters of summertime; The pale male workers who know no time off Because too recently employed; the old Manhattan hands, in patched and gin-stained tweeds; The writers (Walker's one), who see in their City as desert an oasis of Silence and time to execute their plots Against the state of things, but fall a prey To day succeeding day alone, and call A party to restore themselves to all The inside jokes of winter, in whose caul People click, kiss like billiard balls, and fall, Insensible, into odd pockets. Dense As gander-feather winter snow, intense As inextinguishable summer sun At five o'clock (which it now is), the noise Of Walker's congeries of girls and boys Foregathered in their gabbling gratitude Strikes down the stairwell from the altitude Of his wide-open walk-up, beckoning Me, solo, wife gone north, to sickening Top-story heat and talk jackhammering Upon the anvils of all ears. "Christ, Lou, you're here," Whoops Walker, topping up a jelly jar ("Crabapple," says the label, still stuck on) With gin and tonic, a blue liquid smoke That seeks its level in my unexplored Interior, and sends back a sonar ping To echo in my head. Two more blue gins. The sweat that mists my glasses interdicts My sizing up my interlocutor, Who is, I think, the girl who lives next door, A long-necked, fiddleheaded, celliform Girl cellist propped on an improbably Slim leg. Gin pings are now continuous. The room swings in its gimbals. In the bath Is silence, blessed, relative, untorn By the cool drizzle of the bathtub tap, A clear and present invitation. Like A climber conquering K.28, I clamber over the white porcelain Rock face, through whitish veils of rubberized Shower curtain, and at length, full-dressed, recline In the encaustic crater, where a fine Thread of cold water irrigates my feet, To sleep, perchance to dream of winter in The Village, fat with its full complement Of refugees returned to their own turf— Unspringy as it is—in a strong surf Of retrogressing lemmings, faces fixed On the unlovely birthplace of their mixed Emotions, marriages, media, and met- Aphors. Lord God of hosts, be with them yet.
Tras Os Montes
I. Mother (1892-1973) My mother, with a skin of crêpe de Chine, Predominantly yellow-colored, sheer Enough to let the venous blue show through The secondarily bluish carapace, Coughs, rasps, and rattles in her terminal Dream, interrupted by lucidities, When, suctioned out and listening with hard Ears almost waned to stone, she hears me say, "Mother, we're here. The two of us are here. Anne's here with me," and she says, "Anne is so— So pretty," as if abdicating all Her principalities of prettiness— So noted in her teens, when she smote all Who saw her shake a leg upon the stage Of vaudeville—and sinking into deeps Where ancience lurks, and barebone toothlessness, And bareback exits from the centre ring Of cynosure. Of little, less is left When we leave: a stick figure of a once Quite formidable personage. It is, Therefore, no shock, when next day the call comes From my worn father, followed by the spade Engaged upon hard January earth In Bellevue Cemetery, where he sways And cries for fifty years of joint returns Unjointed, and plucks one carnation from The grave bouquet of springing flowers upon The medium-priced coffin of veneer, To press and keep as a venereal Greenness brought forward from the greying past. II. Father (1895-1974) Whether the rivals for a wife and mother can Compose their differences and timely warp Into concomitant currents, taken by The selfsame tide when taken at the flood— Great waters poured black downhill at the height Of melting in the middle of the night— Is to be seen. We did not find it so. My father, whom I loved as if he'd done All his devoirs (though he had not), and shone Upon my forehead like a morning sun, Came home out of his hospital to stay In our rich, alien house, where trappings tried His niggard monkishness. Four days he stayed In his ashen cocoon; the fifth he died Under my ministrations, his pug jaw Thrust out toward the port of hopelessness, Where he (I hope) received the sirens of All possible welcoming tugs, even as I Felt under his grey, waxen nose for breath And called the doctor to record a death That made shift rather easier for me, Staring at nothing standing out to sea. III. Tras Os Montes (197-) 1. In Company Inspecting their kit and equipment at first light, I am glad the dawn is behind me, so my friends Cannot reflect upon my tears. The province I Move on across the mountains is still night- Bound, deep beneath the reaches of the sun Across the passes; so it will remain All of this long and dusty day, while we— Will, Joe, Bob, Jonathan, Garth, Peter, Paul, Ed, John, Phil, Harry, and a droptic me— March up the sunstruck slopes, dots on the rock That jags two thousand metres high ahead Of us above the passes where the dead Take formal leave of life: a kiss on both Cheeks of the dear departing, medals stripped, With all due ceremony, from his breast, Both epaulets cut loose from their braid stays, His sword, unbroken, pommelled in the hand Of his reliever; lastly, a salute Fired by the arms of officers, the guns Of other ranks, and a flat bugle call Played on a battered Spanish instrument With ragged tassels as the body falls Over the parapet—gaining weightlessness As its flesh deliquesces, as its bones Shiver to ashes—into an air that crawls With all the arts of darkness far below. 2. A Deux A new scenario: on upswept slopes Of ripe green wheat—rare in this country—we Take, linked, a last long walk. In late July, The landscape waits, breath bated, on the whim Of cumulonimbi in the west, which roll In with deceptive stealth, revealing a Black heart cut with a cicatrice of fire, Zigzagging to its ground: a naked peak Kilometres away, a serra out Of mind. I fix your face with a wax smile. Our hands articulate our oneness, soon To dissipate, in a stiff splay of joints. Is all the language at my tongue's command Too little to announce my stammered thanks For your unquestioning hand at my side, Too much to say I know the lowly deuce Is a poor card to play beside the ace, Black with his curlicues and his strong pulse Of sauve qui peut ambition? Calling a spade A spade, I'm pierced with the extreme regret Of one who dies intestate; as I'm snatched Into the stormcloud from the springing field, From green to black, I spy on you, below, A lone maid in green wheat, and rain farewells And late apologies on your grey head, And thunder sorrows and regrets. The storm Goes east, and the sun picks out my remains Against the cloud: a tentative rainbow, An inverse, weak, and spectral kind of smile. 3. Alone The long march up the fulvous ridgebacks to The marches, the frontiers of difference— Where flesh marches with bone, day marches with His wife the night, and country marches with Another country—is accomplished best, By paradox, alone. A world of twos, Of yangs and yins, of lives and objects, of Sound grasses and deaf stones, is best essayed By sole infiltrators who have cast off Their ties to living moorings, and stand out Into the roads of noon approaching night Casting a single shadow, earnest of Their honorable intention to lay down Their lives for their old country, humankind, In the same selfish spirit that inspired Their lifelong journey, largely and at last Alone, across the passes that divide A life from every other, the sheer crags Of overweening will, the deepening scarps Like brain fissures that cunningly cut off Each outcrop from the main and make it one While its luck lasts, while its bravura holds Against all odds, until the final climb Across the mountains to the farther shore Of sundown on the watersheds, where self, Propelled by its last rays, sways in the sway Of the last grasses and falls headlong in The darkness of the dust it is part of Upon the passes where we are no more: Where the recirculating shaft goes home Into the breast that armed it for the air, And, as we must expect, the art that there Turned our lone hand into imperial Rome Reverts to earth and its inveterate love For the inanimate and its return. FINIS
Our Literary Heritage
I. Riverside Drive, 1929 " ‘Good-by, Ralph. It should end some other way. Not this,' Corinna said. ‘Now go away.' No. Rhymes. It's ludicrous. Try ‘Dear, good-by.' No. Repetitious. Maybe ‘Dear, farewell.' No. Stagy. Out of character. Oh, hell. Time for a drink." The Smith-Corona heaves As he retracts his knickerbockered knees To rise. Outside, a southbound tug receives The sun broadside, and the bold Linit sign Pales on the Jersey shore. Fresh gin, tk-tk- Tk-tk-tk-tk, quite clearly fills his glass Half full from the unlabelled bottle. Now His boyish fingers grip the siphon's worn Wire basketweave and press the trigger down To utter soda water. One long sip Subtracts a third of it for carrying. On the way back, he pauses at the door Beside his football picture, where a snore Attests that all is well and promises Him time to work. To work: before the tall, Black, idle typewriter, before the small Black type elitely inching on the blank White sea of bond, he quails and takes a drink. First, demolitions: the slant shilling mark Defaces half a hundred characters With killing strike-overs. Now, a new start: " ‘Good-by, Ralph. I don't know why it should end Like tihs,' Corinna said. ‘But be my friend.' '' II. Hotel Shawmut, Boston, 1946 (From a commercial travellers' hotel, Professor S. jumped straight down into hell, While—jug-o'-rum-rum—engines made their way Beneath him, one so cold December day). While he prepares his body, cold gears mate And chuckle in the long draught of the street. He shaves; his silver spectacles peruse An issue of The North American Muse. He uses Mum; outside him in the hall, Maids talk their language; snow begins to fall. He puts on his old clothes. The narrow room Has nothing, nothing to discuss with him Except what time you should send out your suit And shoes for cleaning. Now he stamps his foot: Outside the window, not saying anything, Appears a seagull, standing on one wing; A long-awaited colleague. With glad cry, Professor S. embraces the white sky. While S. demolishes a taxicab, His spectacles review the life of Crabbe. (From a commercial travellers' hotel, Profesor S. descended into hell. But once in April in New Haven he Kissed a friend's sister in the gloom of trees.) III. Deus Ex Machina, Flushing, 1966 La Guardia. Knee-deep in storyboards, I line up for the shuttle, which arrives Outside the gate and off-loads shuffling streams Of transferees—each in his uniform Of sober stuff and nonsense, with a case Of talents at his side—who pass our line Of somber-suited shuttlers carrying Our cases on. Then one appears, a rare Bird in migration to New York, a bare- Crowned singer of the stony coast of Maine, And of Third Avenue in rain; a bard. The way of the almost-extinct is hard. He peers through tortoise-shelly glasses at The crowd, the place, the year. He is not here And is. In his check jacket, he describes An arc of back and arms as he proceeds Between two city starlings, carrying His store of songs in a beat leather grip And a dried drop of his brown lamb's blood on His wilted collar. A Time-reader in Glenurquhart plaid identifies his bird— "Godwit, the poet"—to a flannel friend. The bard stalks on on his two legs, aware He has been spotted; in, I'd say, some pain At an existence which anticipates Its end and in the meantime tolerates Intolerance of the wing, the whim, the one Unanswerable voice which sings alone. IV. Lament of the Makers, Including Me: 1967 New-minted coin, my poet's mask (A small denomination in Demotic nickel, brass, or tin) Passes from hand to hand to hand Beyond my six acres of land. Did I desire such currency Among the meritocracy Of tri-named ladies who preserve The flame of art in mackled hands, Of universitarians And decimal librarians Who shore and store up textual Addenda, of asexual Old arbiters and referees Who startle letters with a sneeze, Of critics whose incautious cough Halts a new wave or sends it off To break on uninhabited shores, Of publishers, insensual bores Procuring art—"A maidenhead!"— To Jack the Reader, of well-read Young underfaced admirers who Impinge on undefended you At readings in all colleges? No, I did not; but knowledge is All-powerless to seek redress From injuries to innocence. I think continually of Abjurers, who, fed on self-love, Housed in an incommodious cave, Clothed in three-button sackcloth, crave Indulgence of no audience But their own laudatory ears. Alack, this anchoritic few Dwindles; these ticking times are too Struck with celebrity's arrears, And heap past-due advances on The embryonic artisan; All hours from dawn to night are lauds, All auditors are all applause (However electronic), all Tempters conspire in Adam's fall. The world turned upside-down, without A beast in view, without a doubt, Recalls its exiles and bestows On them the palm, the bays, the rose (Art sick?), the Laurel Wormser Prize, Whose debased dollar only buys More nods, more goods, more fame, more praise: Not art, as in the rude old days. Now worldward poets turn and say, Timor vitae conturbat me.
Homage to Clotho: A Hospital Suite
1 Nowhere is all around us, pressureless, A vacuum waiting for a rupture in The tegument, a puncture in the skin, To pass inside without a password and Implode us into Erewhon. This room Is dangerously unguarded: in one wall An empty elevator clangs its doors, Imperiously, for fodder; in the hall, Bare stretchers gape for commerce; in the air Outside, a trembling, empty brightness falls In hunger on those whom it would devour Like any sparrow hawk as darkness falls And rises silently up the steel stairs To the eleventh and last floor, where I Reside on sufferance of authorities Until my visas wither, and I die. 2 Where is my friend, Rodonda Morton Schiff, Whose hulk breasts, cygnet-like, the Totensee, Shrilling her bosun's whistles, piping Death— The Almirante of the Doldrums in His black cocked hat and braided cape—aboard Her scuttling vessel with such poems as just Escape confounding his gaunt rape with lust? She should be singing my song at this hour. 3 It is a simple matter to be brave In facing a black screen with a white FIN— The final title—fading out as all Credits have faded in the final crawl, To which the audience has turned its back And mumbled, shuffled, struggled into coats On its way out to face a different night; It is far harder, in the light of day, Surrounded by striped student nurses, to Endure a slight procedure in which you Are the anatomy lesson in pink paint Splashed by some master on the tinctured air, Complete, in gross detail, to the grimace Denoted by a squiggle on your face As the bone-marrow needle sinks its fang Through atomies of drugged and dullard skin And subcutaneum to pierce the thin, Tough eggshell of the pelvic arch, wherein— After steam-hammer pressure—it will suck Up sips of specimen tissue with a pain Akin to an extraction under gas, All gravity against all hollowness. Affronted and affrighted, I can't pass This episode in silent dignity Or bloodless banter; I must sweat and grunt And moan in corporal fear of corporal pain Too venial to be mortal, making a fool Of my lay figure in its textbook pose (Fig. 1) before these starched and giggling girls Too young to be let out of simpering school To meet live terror face to face and lose. 4 Why must the young male nurse who preps the plain Of my knife-thrower's-target abdomen With his conversant razor, talking snicks Of scything into my sedated ears, Talk also in his flat and friendly voice, So far from showdowns, on a blasé note Of reassurance, learnt by classroom rote? It is that he must make his living, too. 5 If Hell abides on earth this must be it: This too-bright-lit-at-all-hours-of-the-day- And-night recovery room, where nurses flit In stroboscopic steps between the beds All cheek by jowl that hold recoverers Suspended in the grog of half-damped pain And tubularities of light-blue light. For condiment in this mulled mix, there are Assorted groans and screams; and, lest repose Outstrip the sufferer, there is his own Throat-filling Gobi, mucous membrane gone Dry as Arabia, as barren of Hydropsy as a sunburnt cage of bone Perched on parched rocks where game Parcheesian (A devil figure, this) went, wended his Bent way to harvest, for a shekel, rugs, And pack them back by camel over sands Of nightmare to transship to richer lands Where millions of small rills plash into streams That give rise to great rivers—such wet dreams Afflict the desiccate on their interminable way Up through the layers of half-light to day. 6 The riddle of the Sphinx. Man walks on three Legs at the last. I walk on three, one of Which is a wheeled I.V. pole, when I rise From bed the first time to make my aged way Into the toilet, where, while my legs sway And the pole sways, swinging its censer high, I wait to urinate, and cannot make My mortal coils distill a drop, as time Stumps past and leaves me swaying there. Defeat: I roll and hobble back to bed, to the Refrain of cheeping wheels. Soon the young man With his snake-handler's fist of catheters Will come to see me and supply the lack Of my drugged muscles with the gravity Of his solution, and I'll void into A beige bag clipped to the bedside, one of The bottles, bags, and tubes I'm tethered to As a condition of continuance. The body swells until it duns the mind With importunities in this refined, White-sheeted torture, practiced by a kind, Withdrawn white face trained in the arts of love. 7 Home, and the lees of autumn scuttle up To my halt feet: fat, sportive maple leaves Struck into ochre by the frost and stripped From their umbilic cords to skate across The blacktop drive and fetch up on my shoes As if including me in their great fall, Windy with rumors of the coming ice. Though fallen, frostbit, yellowed also, I Cannot participate in their late game But must leave them to hide and seek a place To decompose in, while I clamber up Long enneads of stairs to the room where I'll recompose myself to durance in A world of voices and surprises, for As long as Clotho draws my filament— To my now flagging wonder and applause— From indefatigable spinnerets, Until her sister widows, having set The norms for length and texture of each strand And sharpened their gross shears, come cut it off And send me to befriend the winter leaves.
A College Room: Lowell R-34, 1945
A single bed. A single room. I sing Of man alone on the skew surface of life. No kith, no kin, no cat, no kid, no wife, No Frigidaire, no furniture, no ring. Yes, but the perfect state of weightlessness Is a vacuum the natural mind abhors: The strait bed straightway magnetizes whores; The bare room, aching, itches to possess. Thus I no sooner shut the tan tin door Behind me than I am at once at home. Will I, nill I, a budget pleasure dome Will rear itself in Suite R-34. A pleasure dome of Klees and Watteaus made, Of chairs and couches from the Fair Exchange, Of leavings from the previous rich and strange Tenant, of fabrics guaranteed to fade. Here I will entertain the young idea Of Cambridge, wounded, winsome, and sardonic; Here I will walk the uttermost euphonic Marches of English, where no lines are clear. Here I will take the interchangeable Parts of ephemerid girls to fit my bed; Here death will first enter my freshman head On a visitor's passport, putting one tangible Word in my mouth, a capsule for the day When I will be evicted from my home Suite home so full of life and damned to roam Bodiless and without a thing to say. Footnote: Mrs. Circassian An orphan home. But into this eclectic Mass of disasters sails Mrs. Circassian, Maid without parallel, queen beyond question Of household gods, gas and electric. She puts the room right with a basilisk Look, pats it into shape like a pillow; Under her hard hand, the Chinese willow Learns how to live with an abstraction. Risk All and win all is her maiden motto, Which makes mere matter fall into its place, Dress right and form platoons to save its face, And suffers Pollock to lie down with Watteau.
Our Literary Heritage
I. Riverside Drive, 1929
" ‘Good-by, Ralph. It should end some other way.
Not this,' Corinna said. ‘Now go away.'
No. Rhymes. It's ludicrous. Try ‘Dear, good-by.'
No. Repetitious. Maybe ‘Dear, farewell.'
No. Stagy. Out of character. Oh, hell.
Time for a drink." The Smith-Corona heaves
As he retracts his knickerbockered knees