Saturday, January 07, 2006

Heart Bursting with Pride, Winnipeg Free Press, Jan 7 06
Jan 7 2006

Layton excelled as poet, failed miserably as dad
DAVID Layton once caught his famous father, the poet Irving Layton, peeing in the bathroom sink.

He was a child of 10 at the time. David, not Irving, of course. Irving was putatively an adult.

David recalls the incident in the first pages of his 1999 memoir, Motion Sickness. In its details of parental absorption and marital infidelities, it could have provided a template for the current hit movie The Squid and the Whale.

It was instructive flipping through this memoir in the wake of Layton's death this week and his being lionized, rightly, by obituary writers for his contribution to Canadian letters.

"The toilet was no more than two feet away," David writes. "But there he was, balanced on his toes, peeing into the enamel washbowl."

Caught red-handed, as it were, Layton quickly stuffed his offending member in his trousers and turned on the faucet to rinse out the sink. His wife Aviva (wife No. 3 of 5, according to the obits) was furious when David tattled on him.

"I can't pull that boy away from your tit," Layton fired back at Aviva.

"Don't blame your son," she retorted.

"I'm not. I'm blaming you."

"At least he uses the toilet."

We mere mortals take solace in the knowledge that the first rank of creative people are often abysmal parents. It makes us feel better about our own mediocrity.

"I could have been a famous author/musician/actor/scientist/(insert preferred career option here)," we tell ourselves. "But I chose to be good at what really matters in life."

We may be fooling ourselves regarding our motives. Most people make a rational choice to be decent family men or women because there is nothing else that truly interests them.

Or, let's face it, because they realize they lack the goods to make it to the top of whatever racket they are in.
Layton, an absentee father, a philandering husband, a domestic incompetent, knew he had another gift.

Either that, or his gift controlled him. He lived up to our stereotype of the unruly Romantic poet. He could no more concentrate on the mundanities of daily life than an insurance agent could invent an arresting literary metaphor.

For all his personal faults, Layton developed a new way to use poetic language, free from the refinements of 19th-century British tradition. His work is blunt, coarse, confrontational, full of blood and life.

Here, almost at random, is a stanza mocking Christianity from his 1976 collection For My Brother Jesus:

Yes, my friends, though flattered and moved

and though my heart is bursting with pride

I cannot embrace the Faith as you do

having had an older brother Braham

whom I remember well for his evil halitosis

and a shlang you could measure

pine trees or bales of cloth;

given such memories and our strong

family ties, how could one Jew

believe in the divinity of another?

Maybe that's why he was peeing in the sink. To measure his shlang. Research.

In the 2003 documentary My Architect, Nathaniel Kahn tried to reconcile the two sides of his troubled father, the great American architect Louis I. Kahn. Aiyana Elliott tried to do the same with her boob of a dad, the folksinger Ramblin' Jack Elliott, in a documentary a few years earlier. Sometimes the kids just want to get even, as Joan Crawford's daughter Christina did in the classic memoir-turned-movie Mommie Dearest.

There's a lesson to be learned from this. For the child, it's simple: Choose your parents well. For the parent, it's harder. If you are going to be a rotten caregiver, at least be very good at something else, so you don't come across as a total loser in your child's revenge memoir, like the Jeff Daniels character in The Squid and the Whale.

David Layton returns to his urination motif in the final pages of Motion Sickness. Now a married adult, he takes Irving on a summer outing. The old man, frail and senile, decides to relieve himself against a wall in plain view of passersby.

"My father," David writes, "was a man who pissed where he wanted to."

From a son, the perfect epitaph for Irving Layton.


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