Klein & Me
Went to the A.M. Klein plaque unveiling at St. Jax (???) Montréal (formerly the Church of St. James the Apostle). Both are strange: the unveiling and the change of the Church's name. (Who is St. Jax?)
I don’t know if this symbolic image (the shroud-wrapped plaque) was intentional. It’s the ritual performed a year after a Jewish burial. A headstone is erected. A white cloth, apron-like, is tied around the stone and then before the stone with name, dates and quote is unveiled a prayer is recited. Probably not, but there it was, 44 years after his death.
The plaque, wrapped in a white cloth, rests upon the altar. Actually, it wasn't an apron but more like the cloth in which the afikoman is hidden. Don’t know what an afikomen is? Hebrew: אֲפִיקוֹמָן, based on Greek epikomon [ἐπὶ κῶμον] or epikomion [ἐπικώμιον], meaning "that which comes after" or "dessert"-- a half-piece of matzo which is broken in two during the early stages of the Passover meal and set aside to be eaten as a dessert after the meal. (from Wikepedia)
Too much side tracking, already.
So. A nice Jewish boy goes into St. Jax and is nailed to the wall. I like it. Professor Esther Frank of McGill told us that The Second Scroll, his only novel, was brilliant. It’s not an easy read but worth the difficulty. I agree.
St. Abraham Moses Klein. Has a ring to it. I can see it being a street in Montreal. Not likely. If they can give Richler a gazebo, they should give Klein a street. He traversed them trilingually: poetically, spiritually and bilingually.
I went to the same high school. Baron Byng, the Jewish Protestant school of Montreal. The home of immigrant kids. He was in the first class to graduate. He was the school valedictorian along with Bessie Koslov, who became his wife. What a lovely love story. The marriage of true minds.
I arrived at Byng in '60. Much later. Irving Layton and Mordecai Richler had already passed through. I failed grade 8 because my French marks weren’t good enough. We had a French teacher from France who told us "Si tu n'es pas capable de bien parler, comme moi, fermes ta bouche." We were a mute class of immigrants. I got 58. The pass was 60 and in those days. If you failed one class, you failed the year.
Only when the school went half French and I first saw, Marie Claire, Marie France and every other Marie did I really start to work on my plus-que-parfait.
My English teacher, I forget her name, remembered Richler and Layton as pains in the behind. She wasn’t there for Klein. I remember her grabbing Izzy Israel and throwing him against the wall and then throwing his desk after him. She made English interesting.
The host for the evening was Professor Michael Gnarowski, my Can Lit teacher at Sir George, who had introduced me to Klein. Not literally but literarily. I sensed the sad exile, the outsider in Klein. The Jew who was and wasn’t part of the tribe, the poet who was and wasn’t part of the tribe, the human who was and wasn’t part of the tribe.
I wrote to him in 1988. He had been dead for sixteen years. But it’s one of the things poets do. We write to each other.
It is late, but for us it is the right time to be awake, steal time from sleep and pensate upon the fate and faith involved in living in this place.
I, too, am an immigrant and, like you, know what it is to be inside outside.
Much, yet not much has changed since you, as a child, held your father’s hand on the way to and from shul every Sabbath, as a young man, held your sweetheart’s hand on the way to and from a summer evening stroll on the Mountain, as father, held your children’s hands on the way to and from a walk across Fletcher’s Field, as poet, hands in pockets, wondered about your ghetto streets, your exiled land, your labyrinth.
Yes, they’re still all those thgings to the newcomers, There are always newcomers (says a lot about this world). But these greeners are buying up these absentee land-lord dumps and are renovating them, painting them Greek blue, Portuguese green, Gay pink and every other immigrant colour. Out of these ghetto streets, they are making a home.
And your grandchildren, whose parents travailed so hard to escape your St. Urbain, de Bullion, Hôtel de Ville, Marianne and Rachel streets, are moving back; trying to buy back these roach filled flats. But believ it or not, they can’t afford them. Abraham, your ghetto has become très chic!
The Mountain is still there, though you risk life and limb to reach her. And so is that monumental woman whose tarnished copper breasts you threw truant pebbles at. She is still there, still receiving the kids’ pebble attention in the same stoic way. She will outlast us all.
And on summer-Sunday afternoons, the world’s fatigue (which is too much with us) is snored away on the mountain’s verdure. And of course there are lovers among the bushes, eager, clumsy on their prickly bed. And there are boys you would call girls and girls you would call brazen.
The Mountain is still inspiration. She is the female principle in this macho city: the way she comforts. I have spent nights lost in her greenery, snuggled to her breasts. And though violated by high rises, her spirit is not broken. She is still magic.
City elections are coming up. This is the only time the mayor crawls out of his luxurious hole. He does look like a mole. Jean Drapeau dreams of being king but has become an aged queen who has given birth to defecits and deformities. C’est pas un cadeau. This Jean got elected on promises of making an honest woman out of Montreal. He seems to be succeeding. He, like a pimp, has worked her hard, sucked her dry, made her ugly and sterile. But we are fighting back and continue to map her sacred geography. We make love to her at unexpected moments: after the metro has stopped, in forgotten alleys, rented rooms, bars and cafés, after legal hours in all sorts of ways.
And as for the province, the rocking chair, except for the antique dealers, is no longer the vehicle. There is very little time in this 21st century for sitting on balconies (though the unemployed do and their number is growing).
The anglos of power are still in the pentagons of Washington and the vaults of New York. Their branch plant managers have perennial FOR SALE signs growing on their lawns because the Anciene Canadien of La belle province have become Gens dupays. They find their provincial vêtements too confining and do not want anymore hand- me-downs.
I wish them well, yet well I know, that if they succeed, I will be again an exile. I tell you Abraham, for us there is only one nation—the imagination! And because of this we will always be in exile.
Oh Abraham, often late at night, strolling, familiar streets, I look up at lit windows and catch a glimpse of figures praying in the true language to the spirit of this place.