I met Irving Layton only once, at an interview over coffee during his book tour for Fortunate Exile. I was in my mid-twenties then, and was aware of Layton's penchant for tweaking journalists' breasts and making titillating suggestions. Stupid girl that I was, I thought myself ready for him.
We met in a pleasant hotel coffee shop. He made no suggestions in the beginning, instead we talked about poetry and what had brought him to collect his poems about Judaism and being Jewish. We must have talked about that a lot, and the anger that is so apparent in that collection, but I remember almost nothing of that part of the conversation. What I do remember is that talk of Canadian literature in general-what it is about, how it fails-kept displacing my interview questions.
I was working for the Edmonton Bullet, an arts magazine. Steve Budnarchuk, who now owns Audrey's Bookstore, organized interviews in Edmonton for major Canadian publishers. Even though I rarely managed to find space for non-locals in the paper, Steve gave me about an hour with every writer who blew through town. In the space of a couple of years I talked to Margaret Atwood, W. O. Mitchell, Alice Munro, Jack Hodgins, Peter Gzowksi, W. P. Kinsella, Vicki Gabereau, and Margaret Drabble. Layton and I ran through the list, raving about their accomplishments, ranting about their shortcomings.
Layton dove exuberantly into a hearty and passionate debate. We agreed and we disagreed, quoting passages we loved, citing passages we detested. The conversation was devoid of temperance and moderation. Had I been older, I would have known this talk to be playfully sexual, a sophisticated game I did not then know how to play.
It was one of the best interviews of my life, not because he said anything memorable (although he did), but because it is one of the few occasions that I've sat with a man who infused every aspect of his existence with raw sexuality. He was so hot, so fiery. His presence was an event-and I was too young to know how seldom I would come across it.
Ten years later, my body remembers Irving Layton better than my mind can. I feel my nostrils flare slightly at the memory of him; the smell of older men is dark and musty, as if every night spent in a bar left a vestige of wine and cigarette smoke. I think of where else that stocky body of his has been, and what it's done, and what other vestiges must be floating around him, and I get ripples of excitement located far south of my nose.
His erotic poetry, much of which is collected in Dance with Desire, sits next to my desk. When I feel empty, I pick it up and, randomly, open. Bitterness and irony rise up as sharply as in any poetry of Layton's, but there is another passion here, a sense of connection that isn't warm and fuzzy, and certainly not domestic. It leaps out of the poetry like a grassfire.
...the scantness of sense or purpose
I find in the remotest curved niche
of the universe;
whoever framed its empty immensities
didn't reckon on a man's reason or conscience
or the unassuageable ache in my heart.
Women and poems are my sole chance here
to give expelled breath shape and contour
and fable it with meaning.
I place on the brow of every woman I love
a crown made from the choicest words;
I dress her like a woodland queen
in trope and metaphor.
My desperation blossoms into garlands
braceleting her wrists, my sick despair
into flowering anklets.
I plug the void with my phallus
and making love on bed or carpet
we transfigure pitchblack nothingness
into a tamed puma whose whiskers
we stroke between enrapturing kisses.
(from "The Puma", 1977)
It makes me nervous, still, to think of how close I sat to such a man.
I remember Layton leaning across the table, the tweed wrinkled on his chest as he rested on his elbows. I remember that I could barely stand to meet his eyes. They are hot black, and his hair so wild he looked like he had just rolled away from between some woman's thighs.
I had a boyfriend then; beautiful, but as young and as stupid as myself, and we loved each other like two children playing with matches-entranced by the flame, astonished at how quickly each match burned out, happy at the endless supply of new matches our bodies provided. I've learned since how such mild play can become tiresome, how hard it is to light a bonfire with nothing to burn but little sticks.
When we had exhausted the literary talk I tucked my steno pad into my bag and thanked him. He kissed me, just a brush across my closed lips, and remarked on the size of my breasts, a compliment. I said something smart, slightly shitty, that I can't remember but have regretted ever since. Not because it would have hurt his feelings but because I wish I had acknowledged what he had done for me. If I could go back, Irving Layton wouldn't get away so easily.
Irving Layton is in his eighties now. He must look back over a rich landscape of bums and tits and poems. Why he is not more honoured is a mystery to me. We have many wonderful poets, many just as passionate.
None, that I know of, who have embraced love with such brutal honesty or ironic beauty. Me, I owe him an enormous debt. I married my boyfriend, and we no longer play with matches. Layton's poetry adds fuel to the fire we've built; whatever disappointments haunt us are softened by Layton's ironic chuckles.
You walked into my room
bringing the misspent years with you
Like two grey-haired children at play
we re-arranged them
First on your lap
then on mine.
("Reunion at the Hilton"
Now I read Irving Layton poems to anybody who will listen and, while they catch their breath, I rant about how meagre his celebrity is in relation to his contribution. I poke fun at his sterile-headed critics; their best virtue is their mortality-may they spend eternity sitting in a puddle of tepid soup.
This morning I read several poems to my sister-in-law who, not a poetry reader, did not know him. He's great, she says, so why have I never heard of him? There you are, says me, we ought to carry him around on a bed of orchids, but noooo.....
Especially women, she interrupts, since he's the only man around who's sensible enough to worship us.
Worship? Yes, of course she is right. Layton knows that making love is as much a prayer as the swaying of a rabbi, that the comic thump thump of copulation mirrors the equally comic flux of the universe. Thank God he had the sense to follow his prick in the making of his poetry-for it is in the music and rhythm of his words that I am perpetually awakened to the depth and beauty of love. Sometimes I look in the mirror at my lips, where he kissed me so briefly, and wonder what he's left behind.
Layton wrote this poem almost twenty-five years ago:
I sang of thighs
I sang of breasts
I sang of shoulders
soft and black as soot
white and soft as cloud
and of curved lips
from which kisses
fell like rose petals
or flew like birds
wilder and wilder
as I grew older
and my loins wrinkled
like the forehead of a sage
("Epitaph for a Poet")
When I am an old hag, and my breasts are rolled into a brassiere reinforced with metal girders, I will tell young men that a great poet once admired them, and I'll recite Layton's best advice:
They dance best who dance with desire
Who, lifting feet of fire from fire
Weave before they lie down
A red carpet for the sun...
That said, I will send the thuggish young stallions to fetch me another brandy. For if Irving Layton can romp at seventy-five and eighty, then so can I. Bless us both. L
Nora Abercrombie lives in the bush south-east of Edmonton where she is at work on a book of essays about sex and evil, called Waiting for the Apocalypse, and a screenplay called The Girlfriend's Guide to Hockey. Most of her writing is smutty.