When the Rapture Comes
Max Layton’s Witty and Provocative First Book of Poetry
Patrick Connors, Toronto: Max Layton’s first collection of poetry, When the Rapture Comes, is the result of a lifelong love affair with words, along with profound contemplation.
He begins the book before the official beginning with, “To Sing Another Villanelle”, a powerful poem about 9/11. “The placement of the villanelle in the book was at Max’s request,” said Michael Mirolla of Guernica Editions, Layton’s publisher. “The idea was this poem shouldn’t be part of the contents but rather serve as a way to introduce the form to the readers. It stands apart but at the same time throws a rope around the collection. It acts as the gatekeeper: you must pass through it to get to the rest of the book.”
“The QR codes in this book, where you get a scan of me reading the poem as well as teaching the process of writing a villanelle, were things I had never seen,” Layton said.
“There is a disconnect between modern art and the general public. I saw a documentary of Picasso drawing a perfect chicken in mere seconds. However, he deconstructs it, putting the beak and wings and so forth in unique places, rendering a true Picasso.
“My poem begs the question, ‘Why don’t the other poems rhyme as much?’ It’s very difficult to write a villanelle. I did so here for a stylistic reason; it tells the public I understand the classic forms. It assures the reader the ear of the poet is reliable. When I’m not using the classical in my writing, it means I’m exploring something else.
“The notion of the poet trying to have a public role is very hard in Canada. But, if you turn inward, you get nothing but solipsistic navel gazing. I want poetry to be vibrant, alive, and able to talk to people. To be a voice of western world, if one can’t be defined as a voice of Canada.
“The poem addresses a 21st century poet problem – out of the ashes of 9/11, how to create a book of poetry. Whether it is the end of civilization, or the end of one’s life, I’m looking for a purpose, one which can survive attacks on it, as a subtext.”
Layton’s piece, “Waiting for the Rapture”, came out of a 24-year journey from California to Nova Scotia, carrying his mother’s ashes. I asked Layton if the poem had been germinating for 24 years. “I have been germinating as a poet for all these years. I’ve always known I could manipulate words. I had some poems published in my twenties. I stopped writing poetry because I couldn’t determine if I was being published as Irving’s son or on my own.
“My tribute to my Mom was the psychological burden of carrying her ashes for 24 years. I really wanted to dump her ashes in Nova Scotia. I fell in love with that province, as well as Cape Breton, because of their love of music and their love of words.
“After carrying her ashes for 24 years, I put them in the ocean, which turned white for a minute, and then they were gone. The whole concept of the rapture is a way of looking at life, a mythological way of looking at geography. A 24 year journey from California to Nova Scotia, from the point of view of eternity, takes a minute.”
Comparison to his father Irving, one of the noteworthy poets and literary figures in Canadian history, is an inevitable part of studying Layton the younger. “Max’s work more than stands on its own,” said Mirolla. “Obviously, there are those who are going to focus on the ‘son of Irving’ part. That can’t be helped. I do know, however, that Max has worked extremely hard to produce a collection that reflects his experiences, his way of looking at the world, and his take on the relationships that have helped shape him as a human being and a poet. You can’t ask for more.”
Layton invites the comparison to his father. “The ending of “Intimations of Mortality” alludes to the poem, “Maxie”, which my Father wrote when I was four years old. I would have not done that at a previous time. It came out of having a better interpretation of a movie we had both watched than he did. There was a feeling of triumph and yet of feeling guilty.”
The poem, “Alzheimer’s”, recounts the last years of his father’s life. “Not only was he forgetting the world, but the world was forgetting about him. Eventually, this led to me hosting Irving Layton Centennial celebration’s across the country: http://newz4u.net/archives/28339
“It was not easy to be a young man growing up with that presence. I had the good sense to leave home when I was 16. I knew about the lives of son’s of other famous men. I went and had my own adventures, eventually becoming strong enough to withstand talking to my Father.
“In my late 20’s, while I was studying philosophy, Dad would come to visit. Suddenly, I was able to hold my own. As I got older, the conversations got lengthier. I would visit him in Montréal, and we would talk for hours, all day long at times. It was a real meeting of minds. We always had the love of informed argument in common.
“To lose somebody to Alzheimer’s is horrific. I really enjoyed his company. The only good thing is that my brother David is a lot like him.”
There is a musical component to Layton’s poetry, which he comes by naturally. He is a member of SOCAN, and has released two CD’s. “There is a song, “Talkin’ Joual”, on his second album, 2 the Max,” said poet and songwriter Robert Priest. “It’s Max’s musical recollection of the time in French-Anglo relations in Montréal before the FLQ crisis. There was a growing mutual culture that expressed itself in cafés where artists sang and conversed in a blend of English and Québecois French. Max, who was part of this, captures the bittersweet history in a bluesy ballad I consider one of the great Canadian songs about Canada. And it’s not just the words. It’s got a great tune as well. Right up there with anything Leonard Cohen has written.”
Layton’s poem, “The Worst Thing”, is reminiscent of the song “I’m a Loner”, which also appears on 2 the Max (http://maxlayton.com/). “What my poems and songs have in common is they are both very personal to me. I try to find the universal as well as the particular. Songs reach out to wider audience. Poetry and music split thousands of years ago. Music has to follow a certain time signature. Modern poetry has to break with this. You can do this rhythmically with language which music can’t follow. In recombining poetry and music, music governs the words, and you may have to change the words for the sake of the beat. You can match the sequence and rhyme scheme of the words to the up and down beats of a tune. A poem has an internal logic and structure which is dictated in the first line.
“This is why the modern poet should have the discipline of writing classical forms. Picasso can break rules because he can follow them so perfectly.
“(Poet) Dennis Lee likes that I start the poems in the main body of the book with the words, “When the Rapture Comes.” His analogy is that it reminds him of a jazz performer riffing on a particular tune.”
Layton’s poem, “Thugz Mansion”, denotes a scene with the band which may be waiting to perform for us at the end of time. “This goes back to the connection of songs and poetry. I strummed on a guitar when I was 9 or 10. My Mother played Leadbelly records, and took me to a Pete Seeger concert at the age of 10.
“I was always into blues, as well as the folk music revival of the late 50’s. I have always appreciated the indebtedness of people like Sam Cooke to a tradition I otherwise might not have known anything about.
“As a high school teacher, I always got my upper level students to present their favourite songs to the class. We based this on Aristotle’s Unities, looking at a song as a poem. For the last few years of my teaching career, we always saw the song “Thugz Mansion” being presented. Tupac (Shakur) saw himself as part of a long line of entertainers.”
Near the end of the book, “Eternal Recurrence” is the kind of poem every transcendental poet wants to write. The word “Transcendental” even appears in a central line!
It seems to be a harbinger of, “…an age of/Universal brotherhood and peace”. Then, just at the conclusion, as we expect an artful ending, Layton writes about how much he misses the smell of asparagus in his urine, causing the world to begin again.
“The purpose of this piece is to give the reader the ease of laughing at our own pretentiousness. One of the themes in the book is that we as mortal beings, half ape and half angel, have very contradictory ideas about our demise and the afterlife. There is no meaning to life unless there is death. Everything we do will be forgotten, which robs everything we do of its purpose.
“The clash of ideas, the debate, makes human experience bearable. I don’t want to not be able to grow, to not learn anything more.
“The pleasure of the body also makes human experience bearable. Yet the body is mortal. It gets feeble. The spirit, if I could divorce it from my body, would last forever.
“There is a contradictory tie between spirit and body, in that we are on a quest for meaning, but we long to have our burdens lifted. My poem plays off the conflict between eternal longings and immediate needs. These are two different ways of looking at things.”