The market for bronze was up, while other things – oil, silver, stock in major American banks – were trading low.
This news found its way to Montreal vandals, leading them to pop the historical plaques off park monuments on the east side of the city. Who it was that was waiting to buy these as scrap to melt down remained a mystery.
At the same time, news came that A.M. Klein, born 100 years ago, whose active career as a poet, novelist, journalist and would-be politico waned in the early 1950s, would be honoured with one of the familiar bronze plaques mounted by the Federal Board for Historic Sites and Monuments at his former home on Hutchison near Laurier. Other “National Historic Persons” designated along with Klein included his compatriot, the Yiddish publisher Hirsch Wolofsky, Alexander (Boss) Gibson, the manufacturing baron who lorded over an empire in Marysville, near Fredericton, and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan.
Canadian Jewish history has been set in bronze elsewhere by the federal government, notably near Hirsch in southern Saskatchewan, where the phenomenon of Jewish prairie farming colonies is commemorated by a plaque posted at the site of the cemetery that served the colonists.
The bronze mounted on Hutchison will contribute to the ongoing shifts in our understanding and reception of Klein, who was an omnipresent figure on the Montreal scene in the 1930s and ’40s. In the decades since his death in 1972, Klein’s presence on our literary landscape has been marked most notably by regard for his 1948 Governor General’s Award-winning collection, The Rocking Chair and Other Poems, and for his 1951 novel The Second Scroll. He has been viewed as a mentor and model to younger poets, yet one would be hard pressed to find a young poet who modelled himself on Klein, whether on his persona or his poetic motifs.
The renaissance of interest in Klein in recent years runs tandem with a renaissance in cultural affairs in his home city. Montreal’s economic and cultural recovery is solid, and Klein’s interest in crossing cultural lines provides a satisfying example of the way a truly multicultural city operates (not necessarily in any official way, but through the efforts of its writers, its boulevardiers, and, even, its graffiti artists and talk-show hosts).
A remarkable document, prescient of all this, which would look nice set in bronze, is titled Huit Poemes Canadiens (en anglais) par A.M. Klein. An unacknowledged publication of the Canadian Jewish Congress, it was printed in 1948 in order to further French-Jewish relations in the postwar era.
The pamphlet is made up of just 16 pages – heavy paper stapled and folded. Its contents include eight of Klein’s poems from the Rocking Chair period, along with introductory remarks in French by a writer associated with La Presse newspaper. But most remarkable is the author’s French-language note heading a poem titled Parade of St. Jean Baptiste, in which he outlines his poetic goals. The note, translated, reads as follows: “This poem, one in a series of attempts, can be interpreted as a bilingual language, since the vocabulary of the poetry is closer in origin to Latin and Normandy. Each of the words, with the exception of articles and auxiliaries, have a sound similar to one among French words – words that are very close to each other in the two languages.”
Imagine the uniqueness of Klein’s undertaking, however minor its effects, in the still unsettled postwar moment when no one had yet heard of a thing called multiculturalism. His poem, created of an imagined “langage bilingue,” begins this way: “Bannered, and ranked, and at its stances fixed/ the enfilade with vestment colours the air./ Roll now the batons of the tambours round/ ruminant with commencement, and now sound/ annunciative, ultramontane, the/ fanfares of jubilee!”
Parade of St. Jean Baptiste is not exactly a poem for the masses, though it is a celebration of the people. Huit Poemes Canadiens is generally found only in archival collections. As a contribution to Canadian letters, it is like almost nothing else.
Norman Ravvin is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.