One of Irving Layton’s Most Moving Poems-“Senile, My Sister Sings”

Senile, My Sister Sings

By Irving Layton

Senile my sister sings. She sings

the same snatch of song over and over

in a quivering voice, her lips trembling

when she tries for the high notes. Her white

hair close cropped like a prisoner’s

and her unobstructed tongue lolling,

over her furrowed lip while her dentures

grin at us through a glass of water,

my sister is some kind of vocal chicken ,

especially when her small raisin eyes dart

from visitor to visitor  as though about

to pluck worms out of their garments .

My heart breaks , remembering her beauty

and wit , the full mouth with a tale in it

she finally exploded our ears .

Is this my sister so frail and emaciated,

whose valour and go were family legends ,

her smiles so dazzling they made the roaches

leisurely roaming the walls of our kitchen

scurry behind the torn wallpaper

to hide there till the incandescence had passed?

Sing, my dear sister, sing

though your trembling lips break my heart

and I turn away from you to sob

and let the tears course down my cheeks ,

my grief held back by pride and even a kind

of exultance. You do not mourn or whimper,

you do not grovel before the Holy Butcher

and beg Him to spare your days ; or rock

silently like the other white haired biddies

waiting to be plucked from their stoops. No

though His emissary ominously flaps his wings

to enfold you in their darkness, you sing.

Your high-pitched notes must rile him

more than rage or defiance. You sing him

no welcome and if your voice trembles

it’s not fear or resignation he hears

but the crack voice of the elan vitale

whose loudest chorister you are , abashing Death

and making him skulk in his own shadow .


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