While chopping up an onion for tonight’s dinner I heard on the 8PM news that Irving Layton died.
My father spent his last years in a nursing home he hated, in a small dismal room, beyond the always open door of which feeble-minded (for the most part) old Jews shuffled along the halls or sat in the cafeteria contemplating soup. It was the saddest thing ever in my life to think of him there. The Maimonides Hospital in Cote St. Luc. It might not be such a bad place to wind up in but I saw it through my father’s eyes and it was beyond miserable. My brother Larry joined their foundation and raised money for them. A couple of years after my father died Larry told me Irving Layton lived there. Irving Layton? Are you serious? Let’s go see him! Take me there now! Why bother, Larry said. He wouldn’t know you. He doesn’t know himself.
I never met Layton. In 1961 I saw his name for the first time, on a poster announcing a reading at the Seven Steps bookshop on Stanley Street. It was a time when I was thinking that I was becoming a poet, or already was one. The poster had a look to it that made me want to go to the reading. I don’t know now what it was – an air of beatitude in the Kerouacian sense – a hip dark fomentation of erotic jive – a pleonastic celebration of sexy truth – cantorial evocations of orgasmic spirituality – that sort of thing. I went to his reading and many others after that and why I didn’t make a point of hanging out with the guy is a question I’ve asked myself more than once. Maybe three times. I loved his fire, his anger, and the rabbinical rhythms of his incantations. I was in my last dying days of high school, on the verge of quitting altogether, when he attacked the bullshit academic police mentality of Education. It was all I needed to hear. I’d have been gone soon enough in any case but he may have sped me on my way.
What a stupid fucking ending to a life. My father retained all his formidable faculties to the very end and so was aware of his own suffering to his last breath. What was Irving Layton aware of?
How do you like your wildhaired hipster now, Mister Death?
[I think I need to do some rewriting.]
1. Photo of Irving Layton by Harry Redl
2. I never knew the word “pleonastic” till I looked it up tonight.