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TRAS OS MONTES

by L. E. Sissman



audioear picture Hear Peter Davison read this poem (in RealAudio).

(For help, see a note about the audio.)

Also by L. E. Sissman:
Love-Making; April; Middle Age (1968)
The Museum of Comparative Zoology (1967)
The Tree Warden (1965)


In Atlantic Unbound:

Attending to the Night, by Peter Davison (March 17, 1999)
A new selection of poems by the late L. E. Sissman revives the sound of a distinctive postwar American voice. Sissman's friend and longtime editor looks back at the poet's career.


Go to:
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Poetry Pages



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 center 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.

II. FATHER (1895-1974)

Whether the rivals for a wife and mother can
Compose their differences and timely warp
Into concomitant currents, taken by
The selfsame tide when taken at the flood --
Great waters poured black downhill at the height
Of melting in the middle of the night --
Is to be seen. We did not find it so.
My father, whom I loved as if he'd done
All his devoirs (though he had not), and shone
Upon my forehead like a morning sun,
Came home out of his hospital to stay
In our rich, alien house, where trappings tried
His niggard monkishness. Four days he stayed
In his ashen cocoon; the fifth he died
Under my ministrations, his pug jaw
Thrust out toward the port of hopelessness,
Where he (I hope) received the sirens of
All possible welcoming tugs, even as I
Felt under his grey, waxen nose for breath
And called the doctor to record a death
That made shift rather easier for me,
Staring at nothing standing out to sea.

III. TRAS OS MONTES (197- )

1. In Company
Inspecting their kit and equipment at first light,
I am glad the dawn is behind me, so my friends
Cannot reflect upon my tears. The province I
Move on across the mountains is still night-
Bound, deep beneath the reaches of the sun
Across the passes; so it will remain
All of this long and dusty day, while we --
Will, Joe, Bob, Jonathan, Garth, Peter, Paul,
Ed, John, Phil, Harry, and a droptic me --
March up the sunstruck slopes, dots on the rock
That jags two thousand metres high ahead
Of us above the passes where the dead
Take formal leave of life: a kiss on both
Cheeks of the dear departing, medals stripped,
With all due ceremony, from his breast,
Both epaulets cut loose from their braid stays,
His sword, unbroken, pommelled in the hand
Of his reliever; lastly, a salute
Fired by the arms of officers, the guns
Of other ranks, and a flat bugle call
Played on a battered Spanish instrument
With ragged tassels as the body falls
Over the parapet -- gaining weightlessness
As its flesh deliquesces, as its bones
Shiver to ashes -- into an air that crawls
With all the arts of darkness far below.

2. A Deux
A new scenario: on upswept slopes
Of ripe green wheat -- rare in this country -- we
Take, linked, a last long walk. In late July,
The landscape waits, breath bated, on the whim
Of cumulonimbi in the west, which roll
In with deceptive stealth, revealing a
Black heart cut with a cicatrice of fire,
Zigzagging to its ground: a naked peak
Kilometres away, a serra out
Of mind. I fix your face with a wax smile.
Our hands articulate our oneness, soon
To dissipate, in a stiff splay of joints.
Is all the language at my tongue's command
Too little to announce my stammered thanks
For your unquestioning hand at my side,
Too much to say I know the lowly deuce
Is a poor card to play beside the ace,
Black with his curlicues and his strong pulse
Of sauve qui peut ambition? Calling a spade
A spade, I'm pierced with the extreme regret
Of one who dies intestate; as I'm snatched
Into the stormcloud from the springing field,
From green to black, I spy on you, below,
A lone maid in green wheat, and rain farewells
And late apologies on your grey head,
And thunder sorrows and regrets. The storm
Goes east, and the sun picks out my remains
Against the cloud: a tentative rainbow,
An inverse, weak, and spectral kind of smile.

3. Alone
The long march up the fulvous ridgebacks to
The marches, the frontiers of difference --
Where flesh marches with bone, day marches with
His wife the night, and country marches with
Another country -- is accomplished best,
By paradox, alone. A world of twos,
Of yangs and yins, of lives and objects, of
Sound grasses and deaf stones, is best essayed
By sole infiltrators who have cast off
Their ties to living moorings, and stand out
Into the roads of noon approaching night
Casting a single shadow, earnest of
Their honorable intention to lay down
Their lives for their old country, humankind,
In the same selfish spirit that inspired
Their lifelong journey, largely and at last
Alone, across the passes that divide
A life from every other, the sheer crags
Of overweening will, the deepening scarps
Like brain fissures that cunningly cut off
Each outcrop from the main and make it one
While its luck lasts, while its bravura holds
Against all odds, until the final climb
Across the mountains to the farther shore
Of sundown on the watersheds, where self,
Propelled by its last rays, sways in the sway
Of the last grasses and falls headlong in
The darkness of the dust it is part of
Upon the passes where we are no more:
Where the recirculating shaft goes home
Into the breast that armed it for the air,
And, as we must expect, the art that there
Turned our lone hand into imperial Rome
Reverts to earth and its inveterate love
For the inanimate and its return.

FINIS


Copyright © 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. From Night Music: Poems, by L. E. Sissman, edited by Peter Davison. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Co.

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