For Irving Layton
By PATRICK LANE
Saturday, March 5, 2005 - Page R7
Irving Layton, one of Canada's greatest poets, resides at Maimonides Hospital in Montreal. He has long suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Though he doesn't write now, says Patrick Lane, "I feel sure he composes poems inside the quiet of his life. The poet Brian Brett said, 'Discipline is only in the long practice of curious desire.' Irving would have understood that." This photograph of Layton was taken in 1973.
Maybe it's this letter is dead. I know you're not, but I
Expect to hear you're gone each time the day arrives. It's the stumble
Light makes, faces reaching out to us in the dark. We call
It waking up, unsure who we are in the false dawn.
The older I get the more confused I am. Dying seems
Such a simple thing. I'm amazed it takes most of us so long to get it right.
You live in time and the dead start to accumulate.
They're like trees I used to see in spring up the North Thompson
When the ice went out, the ones whose roots gave way to water.
Their falling was so long and slow, all whisper going down.
And then their rolling into the hook above Mad River
Where the rocks were. The trees hung up there, their bodies
For a season green among a hundred years of trees. Strange
How fir and spruce turn white from water. They're like the thoughts
The canyon has. Fear makes us brave, Irving. I'm not afraid any more.
The dark is just the need to make something out of nothing.
There are questions I could ask, but like old Socrates, they always
Lead to a kind of foolishness, ambition, pride, the ecstasy of sex, lists
That make no sense. Just words. Old Nietzsche had it almost right,
The part where the poet walks a wire above the street. I always
Thought it best to walk those wires in the dark. Seeing things
Have always made me fall. It's your snake keeps coming back
To me, its last silent scream. I'd seen the same in the hills above
The lakes, seen the wisps of grass in its mouth, the twists and turns
Of pain. I killed the first one I saw, thinking its suffering made easier
By death. But that's the thing a young man does to hide his fear.
Is that what transformation is? Tell me if you know.
I'm weary these days. There's a riddle in my skull and I was never
Good at riddles. Being born is enough to make a man wonder
What a meaning is. Maybe that's why I keep writing poems.
This letter like all the rest is full of questions. I'd send this to you
But what good would that do? I remember having coffee with you in 67
Up The Main while you talked about poetry. I didn't say a word.
Young men don't speak to heroes, especially the ones who talk
Of freedom in a poem. You and Yeats on your stilts. I keep
Trying not to lie, imagine butterflies and Buddhas, twist
And turn. You're not dead and so my grief is greater. The dead
Are breathless swimmers. Remember that night at York? Eli
Was talking poetry while you kept trying to get that girl
To go to the hotel with you. You never got the girl. I did later,
But I never told you. I loved your trying though and want to say
She was as marvellous as you imagined. Such breasts she had,
Such thighs. I was just young enough to interest her lust, that's all. But Irving, you showed a way for me to write myself toward a paradise
And though I never got there, still, it was all in the reaching.
I too have wanted to sing in the throat of a robin.
And though it is a furious path where black dogs howl
I walk it anyway. You told me that. I think you'd tell me now
If you could speak. The gods aren't dead, not yet, though
Their bodies lie in the huge rivers, stripped of their flesh,
While all about them is the great noise of the waters
As they take whatever they can reach to a darker sea.
2. I went out to Maimonides to see you after I wrote that poem.
In the hall I got confused and couldn't find your room.
I turned to a group of people sitting in easy chairs.
They were watching television with the sound turned off.
I asked them where I was going and they all turned at my voice
With the looks of the demented and deranged. Such smiles
They had. A little ashamed and as confused as I always am
I shrugged and stepped away and one old lady waved at me.
There was no waterfall of grief in her, just a simple joy
At being asked anything. Like Jarrell's cry of Change me, I
Saw what I might be and so waved back, a little foolish,
A little less ashamed. You were in the room in your chair,
staring across at a window that looked out, intent
On Montreal, just houses and apartment blocks, streets
And cars blinking through the rain. There were photographs
On the tables and on the walls, you with Leonard, and you
With your mother, a picture taken years ago when you
Were still your mother's son. You didn't look at me, just sat there
Staring at that pane of glass between you and whatever
World there is. I picked up your book and it opened to
Your poem, the one I loved when I was young. I remember
Promising myself that poem back in the Sixties and swore
I'd never lie, but like all young poets I failed at truth,
Thinking rhetoric an easier disguise. How quiet whispers are.
I think I told you I loved you. You just raised your hand
To your lips and stroked a knuckle across the place
Where words get made. They told me your skull still
Holds your body alive. You don't speak any more, your poems
All in your head. There must be such beauty there.
I read to you the words that started me
Down this long road of poetry. You said the death of your father
Sent you toward what you feared most. In the end
We all touch a knuckle to our lips. I made a whisper
Of your poems. That was enough. In the hall outside
I waved to the woman in the chair. She stared at me.
She had the look I've seen on every broken thing
I've touched, querulous, her eyes asking me who I was,
The sound turned off, the images flickering just beyond her.
Patrick Lane was born and raised in the mountains of the West and now lives near Victoria on Vancouver Island. He is the author of more than 25 books. His most recent this past year are Go Leaving Strange, from Harbour Publishing, There Is a Season -- A Memoir in a Garden, from McClelland & Stewart, and Breathing Fire 2, an anthology of young poets co-edited with Lorna Crozier, from Nightwood Editions.