Monday, July 24, 2006

Poem of the Week 7/24/2006: from Dying: An Introduction

from Dying: An Introduction

Outside, although November by the clock,
Has a thick smell of spring,
And everything--
The low clouds lit
Fluorescent green by city lights;
The molten, hissing stream
Of white car lights, cooling
To red and vanishing;
The leaves,
Still running from last summer, chattering
Across the pocked concrete;
The wind in trees;
The ones and twos,
The twos and threes
Of college girls,
Each shining in the dark,
Each carrying
A book or books,
Each laughing to her friend
At such a night in fall;
The two-and-twos
Of boys and girls who lean
Together in an A and softly walk
Slowly from lamp to lamp,
Alternatively lit
And nighted; Autumn Street,
Astonishingly named, a rivulet
Of asphalt twisting up and back
To some spring out of sight--and everything
Recalls one fall
Twenty-one years ago, when I,
A freshman, opening
A green door just across the river,
Found the source
Of spring in that warm night,
Surprised the force
That sent me on my way
And set me down
Today. Tonight. Through my
Invisible new veil
Of finity, I see
November's world--
Low scud, slick street, three giggling girls--
As, oddly, not as sombre
As December,
But as green
As anything:
As spring.

L. E. Sissman 1968

Pay attention to the way this poem builds: Sissman begins with lonely images in short, elegant lines, but starts to stack them as the years stack on one another. They are the images of memory and of the present, of the nostalgic and loving present into which the narrator descends. These images are like stair-steps into 21 years ago, when something clicked into gear and life began purring along. The poem works as a set of real images, but on a different level, they can be seen as memories as well. Layering the meaning of different elementsis typical of the poem, which is an allegory for the end (the autumn) of the narrator's life. Four earlier sections establish that the narrator is dying of cancer. He is, and yet the end feels as fresh and new as spring. It's not so bad, the dying. And knowing that he will die, he pays closer attention to the details around him, to the interconnectedness of his life. And there is something beautiful in the symmetry and slowness of this poem.

Ironic that he only slows down at the end of his life, is it not? This section is the slowest of the five in the original poem, and it represents a coming to terms with death, a realization of the beauty of the things that have slowly walked through his life like girls under street lamps. In the first half of the poem, the theme of death manifests itself in the various vanishings throughout the poem, whether the girls flickering under the streetlamps, the car lights dissolving away, or the leaves fallen from the trees. Even the concrete is old, pocked, worn.

These images provide gorgeous metaphors for the way people drift through our lives. "The ones and twos, / The twos and threes / Of college girls, / Each shining in the dark, " perhaps represent the numinous glow of now-gone loves. Nostalgia for love is like that, I think - sweet and warming and glowing in the dark, lighting us up for brief moments and then receding again, on its way once more.

This same richness, luminosity, and attention to detail appears in the treatment of car lights and night sky. Simultaneously unnatural and comforting, the green sky adds a dreamlike quality to the night. It is unusual, yet the color recalls pastures and country comfort. The doubled, paradoxical meaning behind this image is again characteristic of the poem; it reinforces that there is good in bad, that there is spring in november, that there is comfort in the unnatural. There is also beauty in leaving, as the car's receding headlights show. They flicker into being, shift, and fade out as quickly as they came. This is still beautiful, and it pulses in memory as surely as it did in life.

The second half of the poem moves into explicit memory, though it is as vague and fleeting as the rest.

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