Mitch Sisskind’s collection of poems and stories, Do Not Be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight, is a retrospective of a near fifty-year career of provocative, unnerving, absurd, but most of all, searingly funny comic writing. Relying on irony, paradox, and the unexpected to evoke emotion, Sisskind’s comic talent lies in his ability to be at once humorous and moving, reassuring and unsettling. There is little room for sentimentality in Do Not Be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight, and both the comic and the tragic resonate more forcefully because of its absence. There are no winners in Sisskind’s world, nor are there any neatly wrapped moral lessons. Conclusions are reached abruptly and without epiphany, but frequently there is wonder, or perhaps a wondrous perplexity, that allows for the consequences of his characters’ exertions, both fantastical and mundane, to wrestle for sense in the reader’s mind.
A feature of Sisskind’s writing is his habit of placing speakers and characters in the surreal, and then granting them powers of reaction and response that are only too real. In the short story Mr. Tivy, the title character believes he has the unique ability to speak to animals. His ideas on how to employ this talent, however, are rather less profound, first wanting to make a “successful film” about his powers, and then attempting to impress a masseur (who has just jerked him off) by speaking with the parlor cat, Gross Out. Gross Out does not comply, and after the masseur leaves the room, Mr. Tivy interrogates the cat as to his lack of obedience:
“I thought you wanted to help me out.'You know what you’re asking can never be... and anyway, what is she but a lowlife broad wasting her time in dives? On the other hand, you’re a remarkable person! A precious gift was given to you. Go to Lincoln Park and spend some time at the large-mammal house Gain the wisdom of the elephants!' Mr. Tivy had heard all this before. 'You talk like my dog.'”
The baseness of human ambition, the fact that we are “human, all too human,” is something frequently found in Sisskind, yet the paths by which we arrive at this conclusion are always unexpected. In a wildly humorous story, It So Happens, the speaker, Allison, is visited by the famous actress Jacqueline Bisset, who floats in through the young girl’s bedroom window at night to give her advice on how she should go about her future, “Until you blossom, concentrate very hard on your schoolwork. Then, as soon as this process is finally completed, compare yourself with the other girls.” And what if Allison never blossoms? “Simply admit this to yourself. Then decide if you might be someone who is skinny but with a lot of pizzazz to make up for it.” Sisskind reminds us that it is often through the absurd that the clearest picture of the human condition is rendered and it is because of this absurdity that we can shed the urge to pass judgement. We neither condemn nor pity Sisskind’s characters or their plights, we merely laugh with a disquieting empathy.
In both his poetry and prose, Sisskind writes in a simple, declarative style. It is this clarity that enables the absurd and the routine to sit so comfortably beside one another. In Like a Monkey, Sisskind compares the relative beauty of a litany of biblical matriarchy within the most commonplace and contemporary of settings:
Our sages tell us Rachel was a beautiful woman.
Light brown hair brown eyes
Five feet six or seven
Not a clothes horse
But always looked great whether getting ready for work
In white cashmere sweater pleated navy skirt
Or in the bleachers at a Cubs game
In cutoffs and t-shirt
Yet beside Sarah our sages tell us
Rachel was like a monkey
Rachel was like a monkey beside Sarah.
That our “sages” might tell us that Rachel was “Not a clothes horse” is both ridiculous and percipient, as what Sisskind is really recounting throughout the poem is mankind’s fall away from God. Everyone is a monkey in comparison to Adam, the first of God’s creations, of whose “fission burn / Of which though hidden, / A single spark still burns in you.”
Not all of Sisskind’s writing in Do Not Be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight is absurd or risible. There are moments of true vulnerability throughout the collection, uncloaked from the ludicrous or the profane. Illiad is a poem that dwells on the poet’s lost youth, while in Possum, Sisskind allows the image of the title’s nocturnal marsupial to personify his sexuality: “Prehistoric/Very slow moving, and the children / Would be repulsed by it were / They awake, which they are not.”
But perhaps most personal, and paradoxically, most elusive, of all Sisskind’s works is Al Farber Who Art In Heaven. The poem begins with the speaker recounting Al Farber’s habit of describing the route on which he would drive to their mutual friend Julius Jaffe’s apartment; “As a rule he took / Dempster Street to Ridge Road, / To Peterson, then south on the Outer Drive / Exiting at Belmont.” The speaker and Farber would spend hours speaking of directions and routes. Midway through the poem, Farber dies from a coughing fit and the speaker returns to the present “Now in Los Angeles, lo, I am master of / Little-known routes and side streets.” This jump in time signifies a jump in tone, the poem instantly loses its sense of frivolity and absurdity, and gains a weight of seriousness. We suddenly find ourselves in the midst of an elegy, bizarre though it may be, while at the same time the speaker turns the focus of the poem inward:
Take forty minutes to drive, I can drive in twenty.
But this too is vanity because—and I make this
Public for the first time—I always feel not lost
Exactly, but not really there. Turning left
From Wilshire onto Rimapu, inwardly I head
North on Crawford Avenue in Lincolnwood,
Passing the Bryn Mawr Country Club, skirting
The sewage treatment plant at Howard Street,
On and on, all the way to Wilmette Avenue
Where Crawford becomes Hunter Road.
Picking up the children at Franklin and Western
What in my mind’s eye do I see but the electric
blue roof light of a Chicago police car weaving
In and out of traffic on Milwaukee Avenue near
Where the Como Inn was. But the worst or best
Is this: alone in the Passat, I’m with Al Farber|
In this Oldsmobile the day he thought the hell with it
And stayed on Foster Avenue all the way
To Nagle. “I’m staying on Foster!” he cried,
And stuck the steering wheel to challenge God.
But bear with my muse. It is not as it was.
This is an example of Sisskind’s ability to jump with gymnastic ease from frivolity and humor to earnest, unsentimental emotion. Settled beneath the outrageous, unforgiving worlds are inconstant flashes of beauty—haggard beaut, but beauty nonetheless.
Do Not Be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight manages both to unease and to reassure in its uncertainty. In the tradition of the great writers his works remind us of, such as Beckett and Kafka, Sisskind does not lead us up the garden path in order to sell us a remedy or revelation. Rather, he reminds us that life is meant to be felt, not understood, and most importantly laughed at.
Do Not Be a Gentleman When You Say Goodnight by Mitch Sisskind. Introduction by Amy Gerstler, Afterword by David Lehman. (Song Cave, December 2016)