Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Great Stage Presence (and Layton Poem)

by Victoria Vernell, Ottawa, Ontario
January 5, 2006

I first became enamoured of Irving Layton's poetry in 1989, when I was a Grade 13 student in Ottawa, Ontario. I had already begun to develop a real taste for poetry and the love affair I have had with it since began in earnest after I wrote an essay for my English Literature class about Layton's poem "Mahogany Red."

I was fortunate to have been part of his audience on two occasions when Layton was in Ottawa giving public readings. One was at the National Library in 1989 and the second was a few years later at the now-defunct Magnum Books on Wellington Street in Ottawa's Westboro neighbourhood. His performance both times instilled in me the importance of developing a presence on stage when reading one's poetry to an audience.

I had the great fortune to share a meal with Irving Layton and his wife Anna in December 1993, when the University of Ottawa professor and poet Seymour Mayne arranged a day trip to Montreal for the students in his Third Year Poetry Workshop. He kindly took a few moments to read the poems of a young writer, and made brief notes on my proferred pages. One of my classmates, Alexander Monker, snapped a photo of us at the moment Layton took hold of my arm and quietly assured me of my talent as a poet. Unfortunately the photo did not survive the developing process, but the memory remains.

I lost my grandmother to "old age" and the onset of dementia this past March when she was just months shy of her 90th birthday. Upon hearing of her passing from my relatives in New Jersey, the first thing that entered my mind was Layton's elegy for his mother, "Keine Lazarovitch: 1870 - 1959." I offer this fragment of the poem as it could have described my maternal grandmother to a proverbial "T":

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 . . .

His poetry polarized his readership, but it never made apologies, nor, in my mind, was an apology required.

Thank you, Irving, for everything.

- Victoria Vernell, Ottawa, Ontario

6:49 PM

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