Monday, 12 March 2012

Irving Layton's Last Poem?

"I found this in Box 31 of the Layton collection at Concordia University in Montreal. A clutch of pages stapled together; multiple drafts of a poem Irving Layton began, but never completed, towards the end of his writing. An invocation to the muse who was abandoning him. Twenty-five lines on lined paper, in the cramped handwriting of his old age; both neat, and, paradoxically, difficult to decipher. It was dated, with a question mark, early in 1989. Less than four years, then, after I had filmed him happily scribbling poems amid the ruins in his beloved Greece, for my film Poet: Irving Layton Observed. Now in 2001, I was trolling the archives seeking visual material for a new documentary on the poet's life. What struck me immediately was that the power was still there, even as the poet felt it slipping away: "my scribbles are as pale as a watermark." And the voice. This is no self-pitying plaint. It is the poet standing up to his muse and speaking his mind the way the Biblical prophets he so admired stood up to their God. Jocular, prodding, the poem, even in its uncertain state, gives forth the same wounded majesty as those ruins among which Layton paced, mouthing verse, almost 20 years ago."
—Donald Winkler

by Irving Layton

My alter ego, my diabolical other Self
where are you? A whole month goes by,
yet not a single peep from you.
Let me have it straight! Did you grow careless
from too long service? Or was it the tremors of old age
made you spiteful and prankish. You gone
invoking your attendance
my scribbles are as pale as a watermark.
No fire in them, no punch. Return, make my brain
boil again. Make it seethe with the blood
of electrified hitmen and of gallant warriors
dying in an odious cause. How many sheets
must I blacken before you [set?] a premonitory fire
to make my Self [shudder?] with familiar joy.
I'm serious, not even Coleridge's famous ode
on despondency cheers me, nor Shelley's moan,
marvellous and eloquent, while the bay's waters
around him sparkle and dance.
What hope for that mortal so lost to gloom even
another's misery fails to restore his self-esteem
[to rectitude?] with one of life's vital lies or illusions.
My case is desperate. Haul your ass over here
pronto. Abandoned, I'll sit here forever
like a paralytic, like a just-invented Frankenstein
waiting for that first charge to shock him back to life.

(Translated by Donald Winkler, with help from Anna Pottier. Photo by Terry Brynes. Originally published in Books in Canada, March 2003. )


Michael Reynolds said...

...A whole mouth goes by,
yet not a single peep from you.

Seems more likely it was "A whole month...", no?

Carmine Starnino said...

Yes. Thanks for catching that.