THE HEAVY METAL of Canadian poetry, Irving Layton's oeuvre is weightier than that of any other ironworker serving the muse. Since 1945, with the publication of his first book, Here and Now, he has produced over 40 volumes, and in his 76th year, those spirited bellows are still feeding the fires that heat up the metals for the gods. A prolific output, while providing the fuel rods for inspirational energy, also dilutes the sublime by scattering its bonding valences and thus weakening the alloys. The critical aestheticians might readily agree that Layton has created 30 or more memorable idols that could easily find their niche in any international pantheon of poetry in the English language. What literary schoolboy or girl hasn't read such poems as "The Cold Green Element ... .. The Swimmer," "The Birth of Tragedy," and "The Fertile Muck"?
In his latest collection, Fortunate Exile, the poet competes against the best work of his past. The volume, enhanced on the front jacket by a Mieke Bevelander painting, Man Watching, gathers together a wide spectrum of Jewish themes. Layton doesn't compromise with his demons but attacks his subject with gusto, and the poetry issues forth as miraculous, warm, or unabashedly lame. Distance is needed to protect the poem from didactic pressures. How does one contain his or her rage against acts of genocide write cool poems on the topic of human beings being reduced to ash for soap? No wonder the molten metal of objectivity splatters over the mould of the poem's morphogenesis. Moral vignettes take shape in Fortunate Exile with the magic absent but the message enshrined. In "Cabalist," Layton speaks for a Holocaust victim:
God was a Presence that he could touch,
The mental source of an inner might.
For all that, witless humans seized him
And changed him into a bar of soap.
He also attacks the "civilized minds" who either collaborated with or worked around the fringes of Fascism, obsessed with a nationalist Christian mystique:
Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Wyndham Lewis,
Hauptmann and Hamsun, Celine and Benn.
The Jew changed them all into sputtering wicks
More coarse and benighted than the Russian moujik
The above fines from "The Magician" seem to be statements more than they are fines of poetry, and somehow I can't associate Eliot with a zoological racism, but still I can live with such poems, although Layton's Jesus fixation leaves me cold. Layton relishes a Jewish Jesus worshipped in every comer of the earth:
Brother, I've seen you worshiped in Bangkok
And your imagined likeness in Seoul
Where muttering slant eyed Chinese women
Light candles for your tortured Jewish soul.
"Jeshua" is weak stuff. I must, however, admit to a bias on the topic of Jesus. How many times during my seven years as freight handler on the railway have bigoted fundamentalist Christian plebes called me a Christ killer, and worse? And here Layton is freighting Jeshua about. Givalt!
Fortunate Exile is redeemed by a number of marvellous poems, some of which have no Jewish content, such as "The Improved Binoculars," "The Black Huntsmen," "King Kong ... .. The Dark Underside" (there's a wee reference to Jesus) "The Wheel" (another oblique mention of Jeshua), "Comrade Trotsky" (who never denied his Jewish roots but remained to the bitter end a relentless militant atheist and dialectical materialist and was murdered by Stalin for being, not a Jew, but a Marxian purist), and "The Predator."
On the whole I believe that the non Jesus Semitica poems are stronger, but there is a group of Laytonian Jewish poems that are deeply moving in intensity and charged with original language. Layton projects a pathos, a brazen honesty, with exact diction that wells beneath the surface. The poet conjoins emotion and intellect in a stark picture of his dying mother. "Keine Lazarovitch: 1870 1959" is one of the strongest elegies ever written in this country:
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
There are other puissant miracles in Fortunate Exile, like "Senile, My Sister Sings," "Sunflowers," "Cain ... .. Ile Haemorrhage," "The Annunciation," "Boschka Layton: 19211984," and "For Nadezhda Mandelstam," "Death of Moishe Lazarovitch," (an eloquent elegy to his father), as well as lesser illuminations, depending on your point of view.
For general readers who have followed the Layton canon over the decades, Fortunate Exile is a must if one is to know what makes this artist tick.
I look forward to other poems, missives, and arrows from this outrageous fellow.