A friend has memorized “It Is,” a poem by C.H. Sisson in Anchises (1976):
“It is extraordinary how old age
Creeps on one
First it is not believed, even noticed
Then one notices symptoms but says nothing:
At the last nothing is what one says.”
Half a life we spend immune to age, and the other half denying its inevitability. Sisson’s choice of “symptoms” is precise if we think of aging as disease, as though a cure were possible (or desirable). At forty I got bifocals and a diagnosis of hypertension. Now, more than twenty years later, the little aches and incapacities accumulate, and I count myself fortunate. Our exploration of this strange new country – age – is unprecedented, or so it seems to us. A poem like Sisson’s is a dispatch from a scout reporting the lay of the land ahead. My friend writes:
“Strange, how a line will stick in a man’s head. In a poem titled `The Clouds,’ Sisson says that `Nothing, nothing came out of the dark evening.’ The poem ends with a stanza of one line: `The nightingales are asleep.’ The line says more than I can express.”
Here is “The Clouds,” also from Anchises:
“Nothing, nothing came out of the dark evening.
First the river came, it was not in that.
Then I noticed the sun, falling over the hay-fields,
Behind the mist — or cloud was it? an obscurity —
“Fell evening, dragon, Tarasque,
Coming out of yourself, Phoenix,
Self-burning corn, smoke under your thatches:
No mean day must follow.
“The nightingales are asleep.”
The repetition of “nothing” (also in "It Is") reminds me of the basic text on aging, King Lear, where Shakespeare uses the word twenty-nine times, more than in any other play. In the first scene of the first act, the king says to Cordelia: “Nothing will come of nothing.”