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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

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Max Layton follows in his father’s footsteps

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Max Layton

For Max Layton, the rapture has come.

The 66-year-old son of iconic Canadian poet Irving Layton, Max Layton – despite decades spent trying to avoid becoming a poet – has become just that. What’s more, he’s now a published poet.

Last autumn, Toronto-based Guernica Editions brought out a slim volume of Layton’s verse. At a mere 50 poems (of about 100 he wrote), When the Rapture Comes is deceptive. While each poem begins with the words “when the rapture comes,” the results take the reader to 50 different places, each inhabiting its own quirky, funny, poignant universe.

For example: “When the rapture comes, my father, who died of Alzheimer’s, will remember me.” And: “When the rapture comes, you who so often predicted it will be the most surprised.”

They go on from there, meandering into the full palette of human emotions and foibles. In taut, crystalline words, the poet, like a jazz musician riffing on a well-worn melody, explores vindictiveness, passion, melancholy, hope and lament. There’s even some juvenile humour.

Layton is clear on something: the book does not refer to any Christian-style end-times scenario.

Rapture “is just a metaphor for the end of anything… the end of the world, or my own personal life, or the end of our civilization,” he said on the phone from his home in Cheltenham, Ont.

By way of elaborating, he deploys another metaphor: “If you put a diamond necklace on a black background, the colours in the diamond sparkle more brightly. And death is a kind of black background against which we live out our lives. It gives our lives colour and meaning.”

Layton insists this is not morbid. Rather, he argues that his inaugural effort explores ambivalent attitudes toward death.

“If you really live forever, if there really was a heaven to which you went forever, there would be no purpose, absolutely no meaning to anything that you did,” he said. “No act of heroism would mean anything because you couldn’t die anyway.

“The only thing that gives actual meaning to our lives is the fact that whatever we do with our life is against the backdrop of the blackness, the nothingness of death.”

He puts a Jewish spin on it for the benefit of CJN readers.

“Most Jews do not believe in an actual heaven. They do not believe that you will be bodily resurrected into some sort of eternal heaven. So, what gives life meaning for Jews? The answer, precisely, is that you really only have one life and it’s right here on this earth. And everything you do is against the backdrop that you’re going to die and that’s the end of you. The only thing that gives your life meaning is doing something which you’re proud of while you’re alive. And then you can face death with equanimity.”

Not all the poems explore death or nothingness. Layton also captures a kind of alternate universe where the end of days will usher in a kind of golden age: “When the rapture comes, seraphs will sing with dybbuks and demons,” offers an especially spiritual poem, titled Choose. “Everybuddy will call everybuddy bro; Arabs will stop being anti-Semitic.”

For all that, he “tried desperately not to be a poet,” Layton confessed to an interviewer last summer. “I never wanted to be a writer – at least not the way I wanted to be a logger or a car mechanic or a decent, faithful lover. All those things require an act of will. They are things that one becomes. But being a writer was what I was – behind everything else, informing everything I did – even if I never wrote a line.”

Layton’s life reads like the stereotypical poet’s. He was born in Montreal in 1946 and his parents split up when he was 13. By 16, he was living in a decrepit rooming house with alcoholics and outcasts after his mother and sister moved to California.

After high school, he worked a variety of jobs that would mould his artistic temperament – at a British Columbia lumber camp, laying track in Saskatchewan, picking tobacco and apprenticing as a car mechanic (playing his guitar in coffee houses and on street corners whenever he got the chance. As a child, he had learned some chords from no less than Leonard Cohen).

Settling in Toronto with a BA in English and philosophy, and a new wife, he owned a bookstore, managed a subsidiary of McClelland & Stewart, was a banker and ran his own publishing house. After earning a master’s degree in English literature, he wrote a novel (Some Kind of Hero) and a book of short stories, and took a long-term job as an English teacher at a Mississauga high school.

At one point, a degenerative eye disease rendered him legally blind. “I couldn’t read anymore. I couldn’t even watch TV,” he recalled. “The only thing I could do was go into my own room and close the door and pick up my guitar. Suddenly in my grief, all kinds of songs started pouring out of me. And that’s a kind of poetry.”

Heartbeat of Time, a CD of his songs, came out in 2010. “It loosened up the poetic muscle,” he said.

“Going blind is a bit like dying,” he said, sounding morbid again. But the return of his eyesight was “a very, very miraculous thing. It was like getting a second life.”

Asked if he ever showed an early poem of his to his famous father, the son told a bittersweet story.

“I remember it with tremendous affection. My father and I had been estranged for many years. He would come to Montreal to visit. We would meet in a restaurant and talk. Fantastic conversations would go for hours and hours. We’d have one coffee after another.

“One of those times, I brought a poem I had written. I was very proud of it. He very generously went through every single line and showed how if I changed this or that, the poem would be better. He explained his reasoning… the general principles behind the fixing. I was deeply appreciative, but, at the same time, the poem wasn’t mine anymore.”

He never showed his father another of his poems “because then they wouldn’t be mine.”

And what would Irving Layton think of Max’s new collection?

“I think he would actually really like them. They’re clean and they speak to people. They’re not navel-gazing. They have a wider purpose and meaning, and they’re designed to be read by ordinary people. You don’t need a big vocabulary to understand my poems. The poems are witty. There’s humour in here. Far from being pessimistic, there’s a good laugh in a lot of these poems.

“I think my father would have liked that very much.”

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