Written on the Body — Summer Solstice

Here we are, just past the longest day, the Summer Solstice, as well as National Indigenous People’s Day (formerly National Aboriginal Day). So several reasons to celebrate. I am happy to be here, enjoying the summer (finally arriving in Toronto) and the flowers. I have started the third chemo cycle, so am a bit “under the medical weather,” but want to share a wonderful event that happened last Sunday, June 16. As some of you know, I have self-published a new poetry collection, The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and Other Poems, with the help of my dear friend and colleague Lil Blume, through our publishing company Pinking Shears Publications (our last book was Letters & Pictures from the Old Suitcase, to accompany our 2012 Canadian Jewish Literary Festival, held at Temple Ansche Sholom in Hamilton. The book probably will have to go into a second printing (!); please contact me if you are interested. Proceeds will go to cancer research.

I was getting ready to work on and finish this book-in-progress over the winter and early spring — helped by a Recommender Grant for Writers from the Ontario Arts Council (recommended by Guernica Editions — and then send the book to Guernica, who published my last collection, and, if necessary, other publishers. But the reading and publication takes two years and more and I wasn’t/still am not certain of the time I have left, and I wanted to see the poems in print. Also, between February and mid-March, I wrote a series of poems about my diagnosis and my responses to it, as well as some other new poems about my great-grandmother and ones inspired by photographs by Karin Rosenthal. Karin is a photographer I have known since university, and her pictures of bodies in water — where bodies become landscape, and also shape-shift into layers of reflection — have long been part of my life. Karin and I have talked about a poetry series for a while, and this seemed a good time to start.

Lil’s enthusiasm and support for the book got the project going and gave me confidence. She also made arrangements with the printer, delivered proofs and books to Toronto, and did a superlative job as editor. And she opened her home to a mini launch on June 16, at which I read some of the poems; this was also a great opportunity to visit with friends and colleagues I had not seen in a while. Despite Father’s Day and other activities that weekend, there were about 30 people present — thank you to everyone. I will donate the book sales to cancer research at Princess Margaret Hospital.

Below is a poem I did not read, but am thinking about, especially as I witness politics in the U.S., in Ontario, and in Canada as a whole. I remember the summer of 2011, when Jack Layton was dealing with his own cancer. Jack, we miss you. As you said in your last letter to Canadians, ” My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

FOR JACK LAYTON: State Funeral and Celebration, August 27, 2011

                        Dream no little dreams  (Indigenous prayer, spoken at the funeral)

The bagpipes play their strange sad lament – 

TV lets us see everything without being there:

Olivia Chow’s strained face, baby Beatrice,

the silent surging crowd.

This morning I cleaned my kitchen cupboards,

touched up the orange paint (Colorado Dawn) –

death does this, makes us clean, straighten, see, listen, and touch –

loved ones, flowers, household clutter.

Rise Up – Amazing Grace – Hallelujah

O Canada, how can we lose this man, who gave a voice to the voiceless,

home to the homeless, a song of hope to people in need –

not a saint, but a very human being.

I regret I did not know you, met you

only once – an NDP meeting – shook your hand,

saw your smile.  The political is personal,

the personal political – you knew this by heart.

Now you go from the ordinary world – bike paths,

jam sessions, elections – into the mystic…

Into The Mystic, where we can’t yet follow.

All our love goes with you – love is all 

we need to keep your dreams alive.

Poem by Ellen S. Jaffe,

First published in Jack Layton: Art and Action. Edited by Penn Kemp. Quattro Press, 2013. Republished in The Day I Saw Willie Mays, and Other Poems.  Ellen S. Jaffe, Pinking Shears Publications, 2019.

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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