22 Oct

Raymond Souster, 1921–2012

This past Friday, Raymond Souster passed away. I became friends with Ray over the last dozen years of his life. I used to visit him at his home in Baby Point and we would discuss poetry or jazz or baseball, the things he loved. We’d also discuss the West Toronto neighbourhoods we called home. He appreciated that I wrote about the Junction in my poems, just as he wrote about Toronto in his many books. By the time I got to know Ray, his eye-sight was going, but that didn’t stop him from writing. He wrote every day in workbooks and for a while I would type up his manuscripts in my computer so he had a good copy to send to his publishers. He also encouraged me to keep working on my own poetry, and was always very supportive of me as a poet. I was very pleased that Ray was able to see my first book published. When I visited him on his birthday this past January, he bought several copies of my book to give out to his friends. I will always remember Raymond Souster as a kind and benevolent person, a true gentleman. Rest in peace, Ray, and thanks for the long chats and the cups of tea and coffee at your kitchen table.


Unlimited Variations on the Avro Lancaster

for Raymond Souster


That evening in your kitchen you talked of the Hogtown

jazz joints you’d once frequented. The portable radio


propped in the counter’s corner sputtered out all the old

war standards, and now and then you’d pipe up about


this certain piece being performed, the instrument

featured and the player for whom you held such


admiration. For my part, I couldn’t add much, just

ask questions and note down the names of musicians


I should listen to, their Vanguard Records I might

find now on CD. This is how I recall that spring night,


with Duke Ellington crowding the elbow room of your

kitchen table all the way back from the 1960s


stage at Massey Hall, and Bobby Hackett hunched over

in the doorway blowing his horn – a song you’d requested


he play once long ago in the Town Tavern at Queen

and Yonge. Earlier, as I read through your Selected Poems,


I’d glimpsed that past world, caught hold of

Old Toronto between the lines, as it had been


back when streetcars seemed red rockets hurtling across

a gridded universe. And there in the radio’s tinny wake,


the electric kettle counterpoint, a low timpani murmur

in the background, I watched as you picked up a postcard


of a Lancaster bomber from amongst your papers,

a picture that reminded you of an American poet,


a bombardier during the war, who’d returned to the village

in Italy where he’d flown, wept on a stranger’s steps


with his wife, as you did then while telling his account.

The water’s boil soon added its breathy, high-pitched


whistle to the evening’s arrangements and you went

to tend to the tea, while I was left steeped in thoughts


of my best friend’s grandfather who flew in the war –

a tail-gunner in a Lanc who’d kicked out the scratched


Perspex panels of his turret just to see the Messerschmitts

better; and my own grandfather who’d commanded a tank


from Normandy to Apeldoorn, and survived the ordeal,

though he left his final battle wounded, a time bomb inside


him that went off seventeen years later. These things seeped

into the mind as you placed teapot and cups on the table,


sat again with me in the kitchen’s warmth, your bungalow

grown quiet, the radio off and the earth waking up around us.