Reviewed by Graham Jensen
When the Rapture Comes. Guernica Editions, 2012.
Max Layton’s poetic debut, When the Rapture Comes, is a carnivalesque exploration of highly personal but also shared human concerns, a constellation of interrelated reflections in which the eschatological often meets the mildly scatological. Repeating the collection’s title in the first line of every poem, Layton meditates on the subject of the apocalypse from a variety of perspectives: sometimes the speaker delicately hints at the philosophical implications of mortality; sometimes he is like a sex-obsessed, carpe-diem teenager; and sometimes he resembles the naked, crying, urinating baby of Rembrandt’s The Rape of Ganymede (featured on the cover of Layton’s book), who is carried away—against his will—by a rather large bird. Clearly, the apocalypse is fun for no one—and yet it does provide some interesting possibilities for poetry, as Layton’s book demonstrates.
“To Sing Another Villanelle,” which serves as an epigraph, foregrounds the book’s preoccupations with repetition and formal control as well as its recurrent theme of inversion. In this poem, the rapture is represented as a time of great upheaval, a temporary disruption of the usual order of things; as if invoking Bakhtin, Layton describes how, during such moments of crisis, we can “[find] our world, ourselves, reversed” (7). For Layton, this kind of carnivalesque inversion allows for exciting new experiences and possibilities—after all, the word “rapture” does have multiple meanings, one of which corresponds to the poet’s enthusiastic responses to the world around him. For instance, he derives great joy from “the smell of asparagus / When he pees” (“Eternal Recurrence” 75), revelling in the dirt and grime of a fallen world, which he elsewhere calls “the land of schlock” (“A Thing of Beauty” 25). “When the rapture comes,” he argues, “the world / Will be a better place: the earth will begin / Turning in the opposite direction” (“Perfect Vision” 29). However, despite the positive spin he puts on such reversals, the facetious nature of this poem—coupled with the ironic bent of the collection as a whole—suggests that Layton’s optimism is tongue-in-cheek at best.
Given Layton’s emphasis on memory and the past, it is unsurprising that another prominent theme in this collection is family. Poems such as “Remembering,” “Life Work,” “Intimations of Mortality,” and “Alzheimer’s” feature frequent references to Layton’s mother and father. But this is not, or not merely, an Oedipal enterprise. Layton seems content to create his own poetic legacy rather than attempt to usurp the father figure that he goes to such lengths to humanize in these pages. When Layton thinks of his father, the famous Canadian poet Irving Layton, and recounts “the look he gave me / When, for the first time, my / Interpretation of a movie / Was better than his” (“Intimations of Mortality” 21), he does not do so to imply that his poetry has also now surpassed that of his father. On the contrary, the poem begins with the lines, “When the rapture comes / You won’t see that look any more,” and he later concedes that his intellectual coup over his ailing father “had been too easy” (21). Layton forces the reader to make comparisons between father and son, to dwell on the legacy of his father and its impact on his own life and writing as well as on Canadian poetry more generally. That legacy is the subject of “Alzheimer’s,” in which Layton deftly shifts the poem’s focus from his father’s disease and forgetting to the world’s failure to remember, and pay sufficient tribute to, a great poet. Perhaps the only off-note in this moving tribute comes when Layton complains that his father’s “library // Sold for a pittance because / Nobody reads books these days” (24)—a familiar and somewhat distracting complaint which could be read, by some, as a less interesting version of Auden’s claim that “poetry makes nothing happen.”
Although Irving Layton is one of the collection’s many protagonists and focal points, it is ultimately Max Layton’s sense of humour and use of clever turns or surprises that play the starring roles here. In “Waiting for the Rapture,” the poet recalls transporting his mother’s ashes from California to Nova Scotia and getting stopped by a border guard, who mistakenly thinks he is “smuggling dope” (18). Layton describes how the guard “opened the box” and “Reached in with gotcha glee,” but was horrified when “his hand came out holding / human bone” (18). More often than not in these poems, the “gotcha glee” is Layton’s own as he deliberately surprises and shocks his readers. In one of the collection’s most memorable twists, Layton reimagines heaven as a place where “There’s plenty of time” to “get even with” his enemies, including those who have dared to criticize his poetry (49-50).
Fortunately for this reviewer, Layton leaves little room for criticism in this captivating debut. Even when he doubts the power of his own poetry, he seems to invent increasingly witty and confident ways to dramatize his insecurities—such as the time he mockingly anticipates a future in which “[his] poems will have much, much / Deeper meaning and be loved by everyone / Forever and ever / Amen” (29). But this is really a book about the present, not the future. Like any good dystopian tale, it tells us what life is like in the here and now, what it is like to be a human being looking up from “the bottom of this well” (“To Sing Another Villanelle” 7); it does not offer a vision of the rapture so much as it does a poetic interpretation of what goes on, and what we can do, “In the meantime, in this mean / Relentless time” (“The Sparrow” 28). As the recent publication of Layton’s second collection of poetry indicates, this first book, about endings, is really about the start of something else: it marks the big-bang beginning of a gifted poet’s career, not his untimely demise.
Graham Jensen is a PhD candidate at Dalhousie University, where he also holds a PhD Stipend from Editing Modernism in Canada as Principal Investigator of the Canadian Modernist Magazines Project (currently under development). His most recent publication, on Louis Dudek, appeared in Canadian Poetry: Studies, Documents, Reviews. His dissertation will explore unorthodox expressions of faith in mid-twentieth century Canadian poetry.
Click here to return to the current issue