Seymour Mayne’s latest book of poetry is Le Chant de Moïse. The book is a bilingual – French and English – collection of Mayne’s biblically inspired poems, most of which are based on stories from the Book of Genesis.
The poems, originally published in English in 1995 as The Song of Moses and Other Poems, were translated to French by Caroline Lavoie.
Mayne, a University of Ottawa professor, has been a published poet, author and literary scholar for nearly five decades with more than 70 books and monographs to his credit. His works have been translated into many languages, including French, German, Hebrew, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Yiddish.
Mayne said his original inspiration for these poems emerged while he was living in Jerusalem in the late-1970s.
“Some days I would hear a voice, something in my mind. I started writing and I found myself giving voices to characters in biblical stories that are alluded to earlier.”
Mayne said this led him to write the first of a group of biblically inspired poems: a monologue about Abraham from the point of view of his brother, Haran.
Mayne says a theme throughout the book is giving a voice to characters that do not have a voice, or “inventing [stories] to help explain some of things that are not often in the biblical narrative.”
For example, Abraham’s brother Haran appears only very briefly in the Bible. By giving him a voice, Mayne offers an explanation of the relationship between the two. He compares this methodology to Midrash.
Another theme present in the poems is the dissonance between people in families and between siblings, which is “a great theme in the Bible from very beginning.” The biblical stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers are all examples of this theme, he said.
Another example of the friction between family members is the story about the half-brothers Isaac and Ishmael. However, in Mayne’s poem, they are two sides of the same son.
“When [Isaac] wants to go out and be a little rebellious, his parents throw him out, just the way Ishmael was. So the Isaac character says, ‘what is it with my father? I don’t want to be the perfect Isaac subservient son; I want to be who I am,’” Mayne explained.
Mayne claims that many people have experienced similar conflicts in their families.
“Parents have an image of what they want from their children. When children don’t want to adhere to their parent’s image, there’s an act of rebellion. So I took those two characters and fused them together for an unusual, strange and inventive way to deal with it,” he said.
Mayne says he saw parallels growing up between the conflicts present in biblical stories and dramas in the various branches of his own family.
“The human world in which I was in, as in every human world, had the whole range of human emotion, tension and conflict, and there it was, in the Bible,” he said.
Growing up in Montreal, Mayne said he was constantly being exposed to different languages.
“When I was in high school I could go through five languages in a day. I thought it was normal for people to constantly live in a world of languages, so that’s what partly this book is too,” he said.
Le Chant de Moïse is available at Perfect Books at 258 Elgin Street, at Librairie du soleil at 33 George Street in the ByWard Market, and the University of Ottawa bookstore.