Visiting Chaos (L.E. Sissman)

August 3, 2009

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?


I began reading L.E. Sissman only recently. He lived and wrote throughout the middle part of the twentieth century, taking for subject matter the professional world of middle age, middle class men. Not the most poetic of material, and yet this is why his poems appeal to me so much, that even with the least poetic subject matter, he achieves a poetry if not quite beautiful, then beautifully rendered. His almost stream-of-consciousness narrative poems sing with as much elegance as any of his contemporaries, and with no shortage of irony and humor.

Although offering the weakest of life-affirmations, the poem’s conclusion is true to its peevish narrator, whom we begin almost to like by the end. The interior rhyming becomes nearly too much to handle, almost too fun to speak. What’s more, few poets can get away with so many adjectives in a single poem. “Circular-saw-voiced West side girl,” “Cake-bearded boy,” “horrible grill,” “cold-water flat,” “brotherly, sisterly staff.” These honor, in a way, the very subjects/objects they are disparagingly describing.

The last collection of Sissman’s work that I’m aware of, Night Music, came out in 1999.

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