Page 133 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 49

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BUTOVSKY / IRVING LAYTON: THE INVENTION OF THE SELF
125
Rabbi, why do you move heaven and earth
to blow breath
into this lifeless body,
drowned under the surfeit
of Chinese food and pizzapie?
and concludes by admonishing him to
Save your breath, rabbi.
No, save your money.
And learn from your bloated flock
bored by whiskey and wifeswapping,
the burnt offerings on Sunday,
how to invest sensibly
in real estate values.
So that you can speak the truth
as I do.
The attitude toward middle-class Jews reflected in this poem
is typical o f the many caustic lines Layton directed to his own
people. In poems such as “T h e Ritual Cut,” “T h e Hum an Con­
dition,” and “Stocktaking on the Day o f A tonement,” one has
the re iterated disdain at the moral failings he finds in the com­
munity, failings he identifies with middle-class affluence and
complacency. Writing in the “Foreward” to
Europe and Other
Bad News
(1981) he states tha t this attitude formed when he
had “experienced the banalities o f middle-class Judaism and
gotten to know from first-hand experience its bottomless con­
temp t for anything tha t doesn’t contribute to personal advance­
m ent measured in terms o f money and chattels. It was a spec­
tacle to make a poet weep o r explode with rage. I have done
bo th .”
INVOKING MEMORY
But ju s t as all o f Layton’s poetry can be divided between the
declarative and the contemplative, so too his poetry on Jewish
themes. I f his social commentary on the modern Jewish con­
dition speaks with one voice, there is at the same time ano ther
type o f expression which invokes his Jewish experience in a
d iffe ren t register. In such poems the n a r ra to r does not castigate