Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"This Black Pen Tells Me Who I Am"

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On July 18th, 2005, Toronto lost an outstanding member of its poetry community. Malca Litovitz stood out from the pack for a number of reasons--most superficially, perhaps, because of her sartorial flair. Malca always turned up at readings well turned out, in tasteful, tailored attire, perfectly suited to her tall, willowy frame. I never, in fact, quite understood how she was able to take care of husband and child; work full time as a teacher of English literature and creative writing at Seneca College; hit the gym; shop judiciously; and routinely visit both hairstylist and manicurist. And, oh yes, publish four good books of poetry and a large smattering of essays and reviews. If she had survived cruel ovarian cancer, I’m certain you would be reading her wise and wonderful blog at this very moment.

I should, perhaps, reveal right now that I am not an impartial critic of her work. Malca Litovitz was my beloved first cousin (I know, in my first blog, I referenced my niece. Well, I’m prone to writing family poems, so I guess I’m prone to writing family blogs, too.) She grew up in Hamilton, and I have vivid childhood memories of driving, there, with my parents and brother to see her and her family. In those years, it seemed to me, that the trip from Toronto to Hamilton took an eternity, constituting a real adventure, which culminated with our soaring over the vertiginous Burlington skyway to touch down at the foot of a real mountain.

Four years my senior, Malca discovered most things ahead of me—including poetry. I can still see her, gracefully folding up her long limbs (Malca studied ballet when she was young) to sit cross-legged on the floor of her bedroom, with its feminine, matching pink chintz paper (which, if I remember correctly, bloomed surprisingly on her ceiling), curtains and bedspread. She is reading aloud poems to me from Leonard Cohen’s Let Us Compare Mythologies. At 11 years of age, I can't understand the poems at all, but I am enchanted; and I have a keen sense that, one day, I surely will. Afterwards, she plays me his record, the Songs of Leonard Cohen--which, along with the Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel, was one of the first "long-playing records" I'd ever listened to by someone other than The Beatles.

Leonard Cohen would later influence Malca’s own work. She wrote blatantly romantic love poetry, in a spare voice. In her best poems, she seamlessly blends the erotic and the religious, while exploring planes of being and the writing life. Take these lines, from her poem "Day and Night," published in First Day (Guernica Editions, 2008):

The moon misted over
when you read my poems
by a thin flashlight.

I lay on a picnic table gazing at the stars
You lay down beside me after reading the verses
and held me close.

I offered you thin black panties
to smell in the dark forest,
and you held them to your face.

The black trunk of a tree in Cornell
holds the holiness of a thousand students
crossing the green quad...

You might be wondering why I am writing to you of Malca, now. Well, first, I think of Malca all the time; and, second , even though I own all of her books, her poetry was again brought to my direct attention the Sunday before last, when Editor Adam Fuerstenberg presided over the launching of the 15th issue of Parchment, a journal of contemporary Canadian Jewish writing at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (the Bloor J.C.C.). Though a prior family commitment precluded my attending the launch, I have been happy to get my hands on a copy of the journal. So I can let you know that the most recent issue contains works by Anne Dublin, Seymour Mayne, Merle Nudelman, Avner Mandelman, J.J. Steinfeld, Kathy Kacer, and others.

The journal also contains two free-style rengas--a form of collaborative poetry, similar in structure to haiku, with origins in medieval Japan--written by Malca, in tandem with poet Elana Wolff. The rengas, "Mother-Love" and "New Key," are, in fact, part of a series of such poems that the two women composed together, beginning on December 17th, 2004 and ending on July 8th, 2005, ten days before Malca's death. "We eschewed the formal renga rules," Elana later wrote, "agreeing to write line-by-alternating-line and took turns at going first. We put no stipulation on subject matter, syllabic count or line length." They exchanged lines sitting in cafes, in email messages, over the telephone, working at Malca's home, or in her room at The Toronto Hospital.

Here is "New Key:"

The story is distilled to this: mettle, flesh, becoming.
And now, life must continue without him--
in a new key.
The one I choose must complement my
instrument and aim.

We must play with the dolphins and find peace at last.

C is bright and jubilant--it has no sharps or flats.
Let me tune my fork to the stars,
write only for the ivories, let me open my
spiracle to the light.

Since Elana originally submitted the two rengas to Parchment (due to a funding shortfall, three years have passed since the publication of the journal's last issue), they, along with the 34 others in the series, have been published in Slow Dancing, Creativity and Illness: Duologue and Rengas (Guernica Editions, 2008). The book not only contains the collaborative poems, but an interview that Elana conducted with Malca on her writing life. Reading this interview invokes, in me, both sorrow and joy. It makes me long, deeply, to speak in person with Malca again and, simultaneously, to feel that she is present in the room beside me, so there is no need to mourn.

I have been happy this week that the launching of Parchment inspired me to read again Slow Dancing. For writing this blog has got me thinking a great deal about the act of writing and the manifold reasons why we write. We write because we have the knack. We write out of a desire for attention. We write for money. We write because we don't know how to do anything else. We write because the process brings us pain. We write because it brings us pleasure. We write because we have taken on the identity of the writer. We write out of an unbearable, inexplicable, and unavoidable desire to express ourselves. At the end, Malca wrote, quite literally, to keep herself alive. As she says in the final lines of "Image Angel," the first poem in First Day: "This black pen tells me who I am,/ whispers of God's presence."

7 comments

Grandmaw, I am proud to have the opportunity to promote the work of Malca Litovitz. K.

This is a wonderful tribute, Karen. We love Malca and miss her deeply.
We remember her smile and her eyes, her laugh and her sense of style,
her radiance, her kindness, her unshielded writing. She wrote to keep
herself alive, yes; also to achieve the kind of closeness that lives
on after life. She's with us in thought and image and word.

Thank you for telling me about your cousin's poetry.

I was at the launch of Parchment 15, honoured for my poetry to appear once again in this fine journal.

Malca's poetry, which I discovered in previous issues of Parchment, is very beautiful. Elana Wolff's collaboration with Malca throughout her friend's good health as well as illness, helped to create some wondrous words and images.

As for writing... I guess I write because ... I can.

Hello Pearlies of Wisdom,

I'm sorry I missed meeting you at the launch. Congrats on your appearance in Parchment.

Keep on writing!

Thank you so much, Agadez. I was so pleased to have an occasion to honour, once again, Malca's memory and her work.

This is a beautiful article about Malca!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Karen Shenfeld

Toronto poet Karen Shenfeld is the author of The Law of Return (Guernica Editions, 1999) and The Fertile Crescent (Guernica Editions, 2005). Her work has also appeared in well-known journals published in Canada, the United States, South Africa and Bangladesh. Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival.

Go to Karen Shenfeld ’s Author Page