Thursday, January 03, 2019

Fantastic Friendships: Fergus Falls

"If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity"
~Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam. More than the widow of a poet murdered by Stalin, she was, in Guy Davenport’s plain and precise formulation, “a very great writer.” She was a witness and had nothing to lose. Perhaps the most famous words she wrote are found in Hope Against Hope (trans. Max Hayward, 1970): “If nothing else is left, one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.” In Chap. 41, “The Years of Silence,” in Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1974) she writes:

“. . . [My] conviction that killers are impervious to any kind of argument or persuasion: debate with them is pointless and nothing whatsoever has any effect on them. Words and ideas do not penetrate to their minds, but fill them with repulsion and fear—this indeed is our only weapon. Yet the killers are only strong when they are supported and admired for their exploits by ordinary people, as we have seen in the first half of our century. Ordinary people, whether the inert and conservative masses, or the rampaging mobs of a popular revolution—brought to a white heat of fury by the brutishness of former rulers intent on preserving the status quo—are won over only initially by new modes of explaining the world.”

“It was not a ‘cult of personality’ we had here, as the newspapers tell us, but a cult of force—even though, in the end, force itself is nothing but an absurdity, a farce, a ludicrous manifestation of impotence. Eventually we are left with only naked terror before the powers of evil. All that matters now is to overcome this terror, to fight for every human soul, to remind people what it means to be human, to show them that nobody has ever yet been saved by thirty pieces of silver.”

When Mandelstam died on Dec. 29, 1980 – forty-two years and two days after her husband died in a Siberian transit camp -- the KGB confiscated her body to prevent the Orthodox funeral she had requested. Only after protests by Russian artists was she permitted a decent burial.

Somehow, thoughtful articles and good books still get written and published. For readers who are willing to search, treasure can be salvaged from the landfill that is contemporary literature, even poetry. . .

'A Spark of Brave Forthcomingness'

I’m touched that Brad Bigelow on Tuesday remembered the ninety-first birthday of L.E. Sissman who, though he died in 1976 at the age of forty-eight, ought to be feted with a party. For some of us that means once again reading his elegant, witty verse and the essays he published in The Atlantic Monthly, both long "neglected." Here is what Sissman wrote in the December 1972 issue of the Atlantic:

“What I'll settle for, and what I’m really, secretly, glad I’m getting [for Christmas], is, apart from a few small but welcome gifts, a holiday season when I expect to sit around with my friends and exchange some real talk -- not mere small talk -- instead of gifts; when they will make me feel (and I them, I hope) that our friendship has worn and flexed and given for another year with a net gain in suppleness and pertinence; when -- it will go without saying because there’s no unmawkish way of saying it -- we all, severally and collectively, realize, sheltered and fire-warmed somewhere in a snowy, hostile landscape, that the only gift that matters is a spark of brave forthcomingness, an unshuttering of spirit, from another living person, so soon, like us, to disappear.”

Little more than three years later, Sissman disappeared, killed by the Hodgkin’s disease first diagnosed in 1965. All of Sissman’s mature poems, published in three volumes, he wrote in that extraordinary decade. It and a generous selection of previously uncollected verse are gathered in the posthumously published Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman (1978). Many of the Atlantic essays are available in Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s (1975). Let’s hope an enterprising publisher some day collects the book reviews Sissman wrote for The New Yorker(including a memorable one of Gravity’s Rainbow), and other fugitive pieces. The same enlightened publisher might also collect the movie reviews Thomas Berger wrote forEsquire. The 70’s were a lousy time for writing in America –free verse had won

Though Sissman looked coolly at death – not in the abstract;his death – Sissman’s truest themes were friendship and love, as the passage quoted above suggests. In “Auld Acquaintance” (Innocent Bystander) Sissman notes that he and his wife seldom go out on New Year’s Eve (known to some of us as Amateur’s Night). Then he writes:

“But in New Year’s and through the gelid, isolated month of January [Sissman lived in Massachusetts], I often think, with an involuntary smile, of friends. Some live fairly nearby; others are a continent or more away. Some I’ve seen fairly frequently and recently; others, not for many years. But all, if they were here with me, would immediately, without hesitation or embarrassment, proceed to open the richly wrapped gift of times we’ve shared, and, in cutting up old touches, advance the state of our relationship. Even in their absence, I can see and hear them now.” 

This from the man who wrote in “The Tree Warden”:

“In the New Year, night after night will wane;
Color will conquer; art will be long again.”