Poet and businessman, infant prodigy and late bloomer, Louis Edward Sissman was a divided and complex man, a poet who while dying gathered with tenderness the flowers of his youth, a man to be admired for humor, for persistence, for courage, for modesty.
Sissman grew up during the Depression in Detroit, where his parents ran a commercial art studio. He went to private schools and discovered “that the way to an adult’s heart. . . was through the exercise of my trick intellect.” At thirteen he became a national spelling champion, for which he received an invitation to the White House. Later he toured the United States as a Quiz Kid.
Near the end of World War II Sissman entered Harvard. He was expelled for what he called “laziness and insubordination,” but returned and began writing poetry, winning the Garrison Prize and graduating in 1949 as Class Poet.
At the time of his graduation, Sissman was at odds with himself, confused. He was big, sacklike, six feet four. He sold vacuum cleaners and Fuller brushes, writing little during the fifteen years that followed. He made a career for himself in advertising, and by the early 1960s had become a vice president of a large Boston firm. In about 1965 he discovered he had Hodgkin’s Disease, a malignancy of the lymph system. It was a turning point. The disease was held at bay for more than a decade, almost miraculously, and at great physical and economic cost.
Death looked over Sissman’s shoulder while his typewriter chattered. He began writing book reviews for the New Yorker and monthly columns for the Atlantic. He published three volumes of poetry: Dying: An Introduction, Scattered Returns, and Pursuit of Honor.
“The serious writer,” Sissman once wrote, “must take serious vows. . . a vow of silence, except through his work. A vow of consistency, sticking with writing to the exclusion of other fields. A vow of ego-chastity, abstaining from adulation. A vow of self-regard, placing the self as writer before the self as personality.”
Those are Ed Sissman’s own vows; he took them and kept them. He was the most endearing of Boston writers.
— Adapted from a tribute in the Boston Globe by Peter Davison.
The Poetry of L.E. Sissman
No matter how awful it is to be sitting in this
Terrible magazine office, and talking to this
Circular-saw-voiced West side girl in a dirt-
Stiff Marimekko and lavender glasses, and this
Cake-bearded boy in short-rise Levi’s, and hearing
The drip and rasp of their tones on the softening
Stone of my brain, and losing
The thread of their circular words, and looking
Out through their faces and soot on the window to
Winter in University Place, where a blue-
Faced man, made of rags and old newspapers, faces
A horrible grill, looking in at the food and the faces
It disappears into, and feeling,
Perhaps, for the first time in days, a hunger instead
Of a thirst; where two young girls in peacoats and hair
As long as your arm and snow-sanded sandals
Proceed to their hideout, a festering cold-water flat
Animated by roaches, where their lovers, loafing in wait
To warm and be warmed by brainless caresses,
Stake out a state
Of suspension; and where a black Cadillac 75
Stands by the curb to collect a collector of rents,
Its owner, the owner of numberless tenement flats;
And swivelling back
To the editorial pad
Of Chaos, a quarter-old quarterly of the arts,
And its brotherly, sisterly staff, told hardly apart
In their listlessly colored sackcloth, their ash-colored skins,
Their resisterly sullenness, I suddenly think
That no matter how awful it is, it’s better than it
Would be to be dead. But who can be sure about that?
Very few people know where they will die,
But I do; in a brick-faced hospital,
Divided, not unlike Caesarean Gaul,
Into three parts; the Dean Memorial
Wing, in the classic cast of 1910,
Green-grated in unglazed, Aeolian
Embrasures; the Maud Wiggin Building, which
Commemorates a dog-jawed Boston bitch
Who fought the brass down to their whipcord knees
In World War I, and won enlisted men
Some decent hospitals, and, being rich,
Donated her own granite monument;
The Mandeville Pavilion, pink-brick tent
With marble piping, flying snapping flags
Above the entry where our bloody rags
Are rolled in to be sponged and sewn again.
Today is fair; tomorrow, scourging rain
(If only my own tears) will see me in
Those jaundiced and distempered corridors
Off which the five-foot-wide doors slowly close.
White as my skimpy chiton, I will cringe
Before the pinpoint of the least syringe;
Before the buttered catheter goes in;
Before the I.V.’s lisp and drip begins
Inside my skin; before the rubber hand
Upon the lancet takes aim and descends
To lay me open, and upon its thumb
Retracts the trouble, a malignant plum;
And finally, I’ll quail before the hour
When the authorities shut off the power
In that vast hospital, and in my bed
I’ll feel my blood go thin, go white, the red,
The rose all leached away, and I’ll go dead.
Then will the business of life resume:
The muffled trolley wheeled into my room,
The off-white blanket blanking off my face,
The stealing secret, private, largo race
Down halls and elevators to the place
I’ll be consigned to for transshipment, cased
In artificial air and light: the ward
That’s underground; the terminal; the morgue.
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.