L.E. Sissman (1928-1976) was a child prodigy who won the National Spelling Bee. He had a typical American middle class career in a time when that was still possible, but he also had the calling of a poet. He was diagnosed with Hodgkins’ disease in the late sixties, which inspired him to write prolifically:
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.
A relentlessly observing and heart-breaking account of a mother’s death. Deathbed poetry is never really pleasant to read (I selected this one perhaps because my own mother died in a car accident and I have never experienced someone’s death bed).
Here is the imagery that I like best: ears that almost waned to stone, a stick figure of a once quite formidable personage, the venereal greenness brought forward from the greying past. Such is the sound of a poet’s calling. This is the kind of language that makes death a little bit more bearable. Also note the humor: the barebone toothlessness juxtaposed sith the bareback exists of cynosure (what a word!) and the mentioning of the coffin’s price.
The grave scene is gripping but intensely beautiful. I think these lines deserve more fame. What do you think?