Thursday, January 05, 2006

Irving Layton, 1912-2006

Two of his poems:

Keine Lazarovitch 1870-1959

When I saw my mother's head on the cold pillow,
Her white waterfalling hair in the cheeks' hollows,
I thought, quietly circling my grief, of how
She had loved God but cursed extravagantly his creatures.

For her final mouth was not water but a curse,
A small black hole, a black rent in the universe,
Which damned the green earth, stars and trees in its stillness
And the inescapable lousiness of growing old.

And I record she was comfortless, vituperative,
Ignorant, glad, and much else besides; I believe
She endlessly praised her black eyebrows, their thick weave,
Till plagiarizing Death leaned down and took them for his mould.

And spoiled a dignity I shall not again find,
And the fury of her stubborn limited mind;
Now none will shake her amber beads and call God blind,
Or wear them upon a breast so radiantly.

O fierce she was, mean and unaccommodating;
But I think now of the toss of her gold earrings,
Their proud carnal assertion, and her youngest sings
While all the rivers of her red veins move into the sea.

And finally, that Ariel Sharon is in critical condition within 24 hours of Irving Layton's death seems to me a coincidence fraught with symobolic significance. To wit:


It is themselves they trust and no one else;
Their fighter planes that screech across the sky,
Real, visible as the glorious sun;
Riflesmoke, gunshine, and rumble of tanks.

Man is a fanged wolf, without compassion
Or ruth: Assyrians, Medes, Greeks, Romans,
And devout pagans in Spain and Russia
--Allah's children, most merciful of all.

Where is the Almighty if murder thrives?
He's dead as mutton and they buried him
Decades ago, covered him with their own
Limp bodies in Belsen and Babi Yar.

Let the strong compose hymns and canticles,
Live with the Lord's radiance in their hard skulls
Or make known his great benevolences;
Stare at the heavens and feel glorified

Or humbled and awestruck buckle their knees:
They are done with him now and forever.
Without a whimper from him they returned,
A sign like an open hand in the sky.

The pillar of fire: Their flesh made it;
It burned briefly and died--you all know where.
Now in their own blood they temper the steel,
God being dead and their enemies not.

Irving Layton, 1912-2006



DarkoV said...

I plead ignorance of Mr. Layton's poetry. Thanks for the intro.

"She had loved God but cursed extravagantly his creatures", Glorious how the cursing is further developed while the love is left bare of further description.

And then there's
"And the inescapable lousiness of growing old.
Gorgeous combination of inescapable and lousiness. So much for free will when you're going downhill to reside among the louses.

And, finally, there's
"And the fury of her stubborn limited mind", which brings to mind many of my squat dynamoes of aunts. All short in formal schooling but fully sold on beliefs, simple and superstitous, that have carried them through to their 80's. And it is a fury; verbal tanglings with them tended to leave you with cvrge (lumps on the head).

Whisky Prajer said...

DV - you probably rubbed shoulders with him at Schwatz's Deli (or elsewhere) when you did your stint in Montreal. You'd find quite a few similar treasures in his selected poetry, A Wild Peculiar Joy.

DarkoV said...

CP, thanks for the Chapters link. I had purchased, quite a few years ago, some books as gifts for friends in ALberta. So, they wouldn't have to deal with customs or the VAT if I'd sent the printed matter form the States, I ordered it from Chapters.
My "ingenuity" paid off well.
They received the books shortly after Christmas, a promise of pre-Christmas delivery broken by Chapters. I called them up to give them an earful. After profuse apologies, they said they'd look into the matter and fix it. Not knowing what "fis it" implied, I assuemd they'd lowere the shipping fees. A week later, my friends called to thanks Chapters felt the best way to correct the problem was to ship out the same books , again. When I called to inquire (I had the feeling they had my name earmarked as "Handle with Care. This guy's an idiot and he may have a gun."), the polite customer rep said that "That's the way we handle those type of problems".
$100 worth of books shipped twice? I guess I'll accept that reasoning.
So, when you linked to Chapters, I was a bit stunned. I was sure with the problem-fixing mentality that they had, they'd be surely out of business. What a pleasant surprise to see them still in operation.

You're right about possibly rubbing shoulders with him at Schwartz's. One of the most memorable exchanges of my lifetime occurred there one late Friday evening. Mr. Richler himself, seated diagonally across from me, told me to "hurry up with that f'ing mustard beofre my smoked (meat) gets cold." I was ready to mouth off in equally elaborate guttertongue when I noticed it was Mr. St Urbain hisself. Who was I to keep the crown prince of Can-Lit from going hungry? I lightly chucked the mustard over.

DarkoV said...

..sorry about the miserable spelling in that last comment. Ever wake up in the morning with five fingers on one hand and six on the other?

Whisky Prajer said...

Well, you got me chuckling more than once apiece for both your comments. Re: Chapters - I only linked to them because they didn't charge the additional $1.99 that Amazon did ("finder's fee" I assume). I typically give Ms. Reissman and her cronies a pass on these things.

As for Richler @ Schwartz's, I'm wondering if Layton wasn't sitting across from him, seething at not being recognized and given the mustard first.

blueskybrightson said...

I had the fortune to rub shoulders with Layton once. It was at a gathering of academics/students in Winnipeg. I got an invite through suspicious means, me being neither academic or really a student. As I listened to CBC radio yesterday do a radio play of boisterous Layton, I was struck by the contrast of my memorable exchange with him:

Me: What a pleasure to meet you, I have enjoyed your poetry...
Layton: Thanks. What is it that you are studying?
Me: Theology and history.
Layton (quietly with curiosity and his famous lisp)Really? I have always been fascinated with what that would be like...
Academic: Irving! Irving! How 'bout I get you a drink? What about the Jets? Canadians...

The academic took him away for a much needed drink.

And that was it. For a man notorious for bravado and colour, my only exchange was of a quiet, intense, curious kind man.

I look forward to re-reading his poetry. Thanks for sharing one of my favourites.

Whisky Prajer said...

I had hoped you'd weigh in - nice to hear from you. I still remember seeing on your wall the brown poster from that event.

Gita said...

I am far from home and opened the NY Times to find the obituary of a grand old man, and an even better teacher. My intial response was to seek out a volume of Irving Layton's poetry, but finding none in this foreign space, I was at a loss to mourn appropriately. Until I opened the Internet to find that you had so graciously provided me with a direct path to the poet's gravesite. Thank you, todah!