Friday, December 29, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: Seymour Mayne’s Poetic Homage to Forgotten Dreams


Seymour Mayne’s In Your Words (2017) and Shirim: a Jewish Poetry Journal Vol. XXXIV, No. II (2016) and Vol. XXXV, No. I (2017). Shirim is published out of Long Beach, California.
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

I purchased In Your Words a couple of months ago and Shirim was kindly sent to me by the poet himself, Seymour Mayne, shortly after I started an email correspondence with him. One is a book of translated works of famous Yiddish writers (such as J.I. SegalMelech Ravitch, Rachel Korn, and Abraham Sutzkever); the other includes these Yiddish poets but also a good number of Mayne’s published works in Shirim, in what the book cover says is “a Homage to Yiddish.”

My focus here and now is on what the front cover says, “Dream the Living into Speech.” If you have been following my efforts, you will notice that “dreams” play an important part in many of my posts. We dream to know what is possible; we dream to know what is sanity; we dream to keep awake. We also dream about the past so we can make sense of the here and now.

Dipping into both published works, I found out with gladness that Mayne, like myself, grew up in Montreal’s old Jewish neighborhood of Mile End. He near the corner of St. Urbain and St. Viateur, in close proxmity to good bagels and good deli; myself near the corner of Park Ave and Mont-Royal, a few minutes from the old Jewish Public Library (Yidishe Folks biblyotek) and from my urban playground, “the mountain.”

We now live elsewhere, across the border, both figuratively and literally; Mayne in Ottawa and myself in Toronto, where good smoked meat and bagels are still hard to find, as is good conversation and good dreams. One can’t discount good dreams, even if it is about bagels and smoked meat, or about adventures on the mountain or sitting at the wooden reading tables of the JPL on Esplanade Avenue, which, for a small child, seemed exceptionally large.

Mayne is an accomplished poet, writer, editor and translator in addition to being a professor of Canadian Literature at University of Ottawa. The poems stand out, I would say, not only for their simplicity, but for their truthfulness. There is found within the poetic words a sense of a lost morality combined with a heightened mortality, leading to the forsaking and forgetting of dreams. Such is the kind of major loss that affects everyone, even if only a few keenly feel it.

Consider first the poems found in Shirim, starting with the short poem, “Fiddler”:
And then there is “Perfume.”
Let’s lobby God.
Keep the angels out of it
and their union leaders.
Don’t let the devils out
of the basement.
Just find out God’s working hours
and confront the Divine
on His/Her way home.
Enough with destruction,
war, and suffering.
Let the world continue
to flower all year long
and let death be only
the perfume
that dispels vanity
and diseased power
. (p.56)
It is hard to find “God's working hours.” To confront the Divine is to say, Why should the good and innocent die young or why should they die at all? Are there no innocents/innocence? What about children and others who die before their time? I can’t say that I understand. Death might have the final say, including the death of innocence, as is seen in the first stanza of the four-line poem, “Candle,” by J.I. Segal, found in translation in In Your Words:
Your innocence snuffed out,
your frail thinness curtsied to Death—
Today at the corner store I bought
a bit of wick for just a penny.
(p. 27)
Innocence is lost is when dreams are lost, put away in a dark closet or a cold utility shelf to die a slow and agonizing death. Art often speaks about dreams and dreaming, which is the rite of poets to say in so few words what others drone on about. A poet is an interpreter of dreams, not only what the past can mean but also what the future can be. The current present, built on a (recent) past just like it, has an excess of everything except hope and happiness and. most of all, peace. This makes it hard to have dreams of a better tomorrow.

To be sure, there is much to dislike in today’s present, especially when one compares it to a (long ago) past that seems more civilized and cultured. Yet, now we have knowledge and sadness and we continue to play, like a fiddler on a roof, but not on an icy one in Montreal. That, my dear friends, is long gone and mostly forgotten. Seymour Mayne reminds us of this reality, and when we read this fine collection, we pay homage to it and dream of what might have been.

Gut Shabbes
Peretz ben Ephraim,
Toronto, Ontario
December 29, 2017
11 Tevet 5778

This is Reb Peretz’s last post. I hope that you enjoyed his musings. While I do not necessarily agree with him on most matters (he has veered to religious polemics), I consider him a friend, albeit an estranged one.