About the Author

Stephen Henighan

Stephen Henighan is the author of four books of fiction, including the novel The Places Where Names Vanish (Thistledown 1998) and the short story collection North of Tourism (Cormorant 1999), which was selected as a `What's New What's Hot` title by chapters.indigo.ca. His short fiction has been published in more than thirty journals and anthologies in Canada, Great Britain and the United States, and has been taught in university courses in Canada, the U.S. and France.

Henighan's literary journalism has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette, the Ottawa Citizen and many other publications. He has published scholarly articles on literature in major international journals such as The Modern Language Review, Comparative Literature Studies and the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies.

Lecturer in Spanish at University College, Oxford and Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London, Stephen Henighan has also taught English as a Second Language in Colombia and Moldova, and Creative Writing at Concordia University, the Maritime Writers` Workshop and the University of Guelph. He currently teaches Spanish-American literature and culture in the School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Guelph.

Books by this Author
A Green Reef

A Green Reef

The Impact of Climate Change
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Lost Province

Lost Province

Adventures in a Moldovan Family
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Sandino's Nation

Sandino's Nation

Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez Writing Nicaragua, 1940-2012
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The Path of the Jaguar
Excerpt

Mist condensed around her head. She felt the child’s twisting far down in her entrails as though it were marooned in a place beyond her reach. The Maker, the Modeller, Sovereign Plumed Serpent, wrought the world out of mist. Her mind strayed through the spaces beyond that haze when the mountains rose out of the water and the first people were fashioned out of corn and took the name Jaguar. Her child was slipping away from her. Before she could reach through that space to pull the child back into the light which, inhabited by the first mother and the first father, would yield life, her strength abandoned her. As she floated on the waves that must recede before people of corn could take to the earth, a sharp smell penetrated her nostrils. Pom. Someone was burning incense. She heard voices: Eusebio’s words derogatory, Mama’s tones implacable in resistance. Amparo tried to reach out to them. She slipped away into the silence of the mist. She saw the people of mud who had preceded those of corn, deity’s failed experiment in human life. The mud people’s noses and eyebrows crumbled. People of wood, the heart of the sky’s second failed experiment, who could not speak or worship their makers, stared without seeing her. As the people of wood drowned in the great flood, she slid farther down into darkness. The tendrils of incense prickling her nostrils were the lone thread leading back to the world. She saw four roads of different colours crossing. Cold fear that she was already a corpse and this was Xibalbá, and the four crossing roads were the gate to the underworld. A chanting tapped through the walled-up silence. Nothing moved. She was blind, the cold rivetting her to the meeting point of the four coloured roads. The first four men, Jaguar Quitze, Jaguar Night, Jaguar Not Right Now and Dark Jaguar, fathers of all subsequent lineages, hung before her eyes, then faded away. The tapping mingled with the tang of incense. The two sensations blended until they were a single interwoven fabric like the rope of terror that runs up a woman’s spine when she fears for her child –yes, she had a child, and another one inside her– and in that instant her body swathed her in its aching weight and she was back in her room listening to the sound of the curandera chanting. The child turned in her belly, moving her body with its body, two bodies moving as one, as she and her husband had moved as one to make the child. The curandera must be Doña María’s sister Eduviges, a woman simpler yet wiser than her sibling.

 

“Raja q’o’,” she said. “She’s here.”

 

Eduviges stepped back from the side of the bed. Mama began to sing the song she sang when they were ill as children. She had sung these words over the beds of the children who had died in infancy, and over those who had returned from illness. Her voice was harsh but strong:

 

Kapae’ wakami

 

Katz’uye wakami

 

Kapae roma utz qaw’a

 

Katz’uye wakami

 

(Stop here today

 

Sit down today

 

Stop here for our food is good

 

Sit down today)

 

Amparo, feeling the bulk of her hair beneath her on the pillow, murmured: “It’s all right. I’m here.”

 

“You’ve been away for two days.”

 

At Mama’s words, she remembered the man with the gun, the other thief’s dragging gait. She lifted her hand, felt the bruise on her temple and began to cry.

 

“Stop crying,” Mama said. “No one was hurt.”

 

She passed from sleep to waking without lapsing into the mist. Every time she woke she felt sad. Eusebio entered the room and held her hand. Esperanza visited her and said: “In the next meeting we’ll start saving again. I’ve spoken to the señora gringa and she says we cannot allow misfortunes to discourage us. The only solution is to start again.”

 

The señora gringa had spoken to Esperanza, not to her. Her powers were ebbing. She had lost everyone’s respect. Her child would be the offspring of rumour.

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When Words Deny the World
Excerpt

Layton and the Feminist
Stephen Henighan

A few years ago a friend of mine announced her intention of writing her master's thesis on the poems of Irving Layton. Her father, who had been taught by Layton in high school, recoiled. 'You're not going to interview him alone!' he said. 'Irving Layton was a dirty old man even when he was a young man.'

Layton owns up to this charge, in his irrepressible way, on the opening page of his collected love poems, Dance With Desire. In 'To the Girls of My Graduating Class,' first published in 1953, he confesses to feeling 'fierce and ridiculous' as he slavers over the 'saintly breasts' of his female students.

To readers better acquainted with Layton's bombastic public stance as Canada's leading lecher than with his verse, that 'ridiculous' may come as a surprise. As Layton has aged, he has displayed little sensitivity to the absurdity of an old man ogling women several decades his junior. The Layton of the 1950s and 1960s, as represented by the first third of this book, was a more subtle, perceptive man. He was also an exceptionally fine poet. This was the period when Layton was writing such enduring works as 'The Birth of Tragedy' and 'A Tall Man Executes a Jig.' His best love poems of the time are highly accomplished. By dressing up his romanticism in appropriately lavish language, replete with classical allusions and risky inverted syntax, Layton succeeded in wringing genuine feeling from his fleshly obsessions.

His downfall lay in his penchant for satire. A poem like 'The Day Aviva Came to Paris,' in which Layton imagines the French capital struck dumb by his wife's arrival, succeeds wonderfully both as a statement of devotion and a vehicle to lampoon Parisian-style stuffiness. Layton's satire, though, eventually fused with his titanic ego, creating the bloated self-parody all too familiar from his poems and interviews of the past twenty-five years. Dance With Desire is top-heavy with poems in which Layton's rambunctious public persona bludgeons any visible glimmer of insight or feeling.

'Am I mad to see soft breasts everywhere?' he writes in one poem. Mad, no; infantile, yes. Layton's women seem to consist of little more than pairs of surging breasts. They scarcely have arms or legs -- let alone hearts, heads or brains. Layton may love women, but like most philanderers, he doesn't seem to like them very much. Lines such as 'I plug the void with my phallus' suggest a fear of female sexuality; a poem detailing his inability to come to terms with his wife's menstruation reinforces this theme.

These days, Layton's posture as a sexual rebel seems merely foolish. Like any aging revolutionary, he has lost touch with forces he himself helped to unleash. His explicit praise of female body parts made him a literary outlaw in the 1950s and an icon of the hip in the late 1960s, but subsequent generations, for whom the pursuit of desire has become both highly politicized and potentially lethal, have regarded him as either boorish or outmoded.

Curiously, the love poems that made Layton notorious now appear to be a fragile part of his poetic legacy. Dance With Desire may prove to contain a portion of the Layton oeuvre destined to slip into obscurity.

'Half the men you've ever met/ will rape you/ if they think they can/ get away with it,' writes Montreal poet Sharon H. Nelson in the opening sequence of her collection, The Work Of Our Hands. Turning to Nelson's gritty analysis of sexual politics after being immersed in Layton's odes to seduction is a bracing experience. In Nelson's work, desire becomes merely one more tool of a controlling patriarchy.

Nelson's direct, unadorned phrasing works best in poems focusing on everyday tasks such as household labour. A tension arises, though, between her efforts to evoke the workaday world and her need to elaborate a theory of how language alienates us from this world. Her plain style becomes flat when propounding theoretical verities which, while sometimes persuasive, are not startlingly original. A happy exception crops up in the long, free-form poem 'Making Waves,' where Nelson develops a richer, more untrammelled language capable of embodying her search for a poetics rooted in physical experience.

Even when she overstates her points, Nelson's voice, alternately genial and caustic, remains engaging. Irving Layton should read this book.

1992

No work I have written -- full-length books included -- has elicited as much response as this article.

Letters of protest streamed into the Montreal Gazette for weeks after the publication of this piece. Middle-aged and elderly readers recalled Layton as a beacon of light in the constipated darkness of the Canada of the 1950s. The Layton media persona, I learned, was sustained by a core of devoted readers to whom he had given an elegant vocabulary for longings they had scarcely dared to voice.

The best letter was from Irving Layton himself. Demonstrating that his ego had not smothered his sense of humour, Layton wrote: 'Young fogeys afflicted by mediocrity and the itch to write ... have never hesitated to reveal their animus against high spirits, wit, irrepressible creativity and my fame both here and abroad. I sympathize with them, for their suffering and deeply felt humiliation must be intolerable.... Clearly, Stephen Henighan lacks both common sense and common decency.'

Layton's riposte was a natural response to a sour review. Sharon H. Nelson, who turned out to be the founder of the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets, confounded expectations by rushing to Layton's defence. In a three-page single-spaced letter that she faxed to more than thirty prominent cultural figures, Nelson denounced my dastardly attack on a sexual liberator. She went on to threaten various libel actions. The Gazette's managing editor issued a formal rebuttal to Nelson's threats. Maclean's magazine got wind of the tempest and ran a short article on Layton's 'new alliances' and my lack of repentance for my cultural sins.

Yet the Layton-Nelson axis was no new alliance. Why did the founder of the Feminist Caucus side with the self-proclaimed slaverer? I later learned that, early in her writing career, Sharon H. Nelson had been a Layton proteg?e. The incident underlines the prime law of Canadian literary debate: differences of opinion, aesthetic creed or ideology are overruled by personal allegiances. Unlike the United Kingdom or the United States, where friends and acquaintances may cordially and vigorously disagree in print, Canada remains a colonial society; here friends must think alike and unanimity among the Family Compact of the chattering classes is still the hallowed aim of public utterances. In Canadian literary circles, the opinions you express continue to be a function of who you know rather than what you think.

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