Friday, January 06, 2006

To the Girls, Globe & Mail, Jan 5 06

'If you are wondering what happened to us all, you might consult the poems of Irving Layton.' -- Leonard Cohen


Thursday, January 5, 2006 Page R1

To The Girls Of My Graduating Class

Wanting for their young limbs praise,

Their thighs, hips, and saintly breasts,

They grow from awkwardness to delight,

Their mouths made perfect with the air

About them and the sweet rage in the blood,

The delicate trouble in their veins.

Intolerant as happiness, suddenly

They'll dart like bewildered birds;

For there's no mercy in that bugler Time

That excites against their virginity

The massed infantry of days, nor in the tendrils

Greening on their enchanted battlements.

Golda, Fruma, Dinnie, Elinor,

My saintly wantons, passionate nuns;

O light-footed daughters, your unopened

Brittle beauty troubles an aging man

Who hobbles after you a little way

Fierce and ridiculous.

From A Wild Peculiar Joy: The Selected Poems by Irving Layton © 1982, 2004. Reprinted by permission of McClelland & Stewart Ltd.

Here is Irving Layton at his worst and best, in both cases, painfully alive and alert to desire and suffering; to beauty and its anguish; to the acute power of observance and elegy. Leonard Cohen, Layton's protégé, once spoke of the "great, aching tenderness" in Layton's work, work that has been vilified and adored, work that will be well-revenged for its ground-breaking, earth-shaking commitment to the very new, and very old, art of sweet rage and perfection. Layton's death, like Al Purdy's, signals the end of our beginning: May the angels greet him with mercy, and all of our love. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Etruscan Tombs

for Dante Gardini

Being so close to death

so many times

why should you be moved, as I am,

by these offenceless ruins?

I ask pardon for my abstracted gaze,

my impatience with your slow speech,

your gentle all-forgiving smile.

I did not spend my best years

in a concentration camp;

no vile humanoid ever

menaced me with gun and whip

or made me slaver for crusts

urine-soiled and stale;

no officered brute made me kneel in shit.

Here beside you in this remote scene

I feel death's cold finger on my skin,

making it twitch like a fly-stung mare's.

Yet these blank eyes sculpted

from grove and hill and rock

before which the centuries have passed unseen

comfort me; inuring me, I say,

to the sorrows our humanity

compels us to inflict on each other.

They teach me to live the free hours with gusto.

Nothing endures forever.

Your pain, my pleasure,

the seconds bear away;

our flesh, Dante, one day

will be such golden dust

as a storyless wind stirs

in an empty vault.


September 18, 1984


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