LIBBY SCHEIER 1946-2000
toronto poet libby scheier, who died of breast cancer two weeks ago, loved unvarnished reality beyond all others. The author of four volumes of poetry, a book of short stories and many articles, Scheier was also an impassioned feminist, a politico, a PEN activist and an all-round wild woman.In her writing, she traced the countours of female consciousness, uncensored and unrepetent. While her subject matter was often deliciously whimsical – the craziness of penises, her lover’s secret womb, her son’s communion with pigeons – she was drawn to the most dangerous of mysteries: her own childhood sexual abuse, her punishing Communist father and the wrenching choreography of male-female relations.
“I shall not think of suicide,” she wrote of an unfaithful lover. “I prefer murder.”
Scheier was raised in New York City and graduated from elite women’s college Sarah Lawrence. She spent much of her 20s in the most fundamentalist of Trotskyist sects, where poetry was deemed a petit-bourgeois deviation, forcing her to write under a pseudonym.
Two and some decades ago, she came to Toronto. Here, she gave birth to Jacob, her only child, and in the midst of an impoverished single motherhood proceeded to set up camp in the literary community, co-founding a womens’ poetry collective and immersing herself in the furious storms around race and representation in organizations like the Writers Union.
For several years she taught creative writing at York University and was poetry editor at the Toronto Star. Eventually, she founded the brilliantly conceived Toronto Writers’ Workshop.
A woman with astonishing blue eyes, a penetrating intelligence and an imposing polemical style, Scheier sought clarity in all things, and she suffered for her precision. Her sexually pungent poetry attracted frightening men. Sometimes they stalked her at readings.
In the last years of her life, she got little peace from her tremendous literary gifts. The dark shadows that had always hovered over her seemed to press in closer, and she sought solace in the more mystic expression of her Jewish ancestry, an identification that had its jagged edges since she had been for several years locked in epic battles with her family in New York.
After her father died in 1995, she chronicled her duelling emotions in the critically acclaimed Kaddish For My Father.
Scheier pulled back from her public activities at this time, even refusing to do readings, and described herself as “in retreat.” Anticipating a personal renewal, she shaved her head and changed her name to Liba, after her grandmother.
Her cancer was diagnosed only 11 months ago, and she refused chemotherapy, relying instead on holistic medicines financed in part by members of Toronto’s literary elite.
Three months before she died, sitting in the Second Cup on Bloor, Sheier ruminated on the seduction of suicide. Between sips of her latte, she told the story of what had happened at a healing retreat earlier in the month when she freaked out and threatened to end her life. The resident nurse, saying little, grabbed her arm and led her outside to where the August moon was sending its blaze of gold onto the lake. “Look, look at the glory of that,’ Scheier reported the nurse had urged. “And I said to myself,” Scheier went on, “Oi. You want to leave this beautiful planet? Really?’
Somewhere out there, perhaps, she lights the shabbos candles or argues ferociously over the nature of class struggle.
But in my mind, she’ll be sitting forever in a bar smoking her pipe and holding forth on the nature of the literary imagination to a gaggle of fascinated men. Her dazzling eyes will shoot me a look that says, “It doesn’t get much better than this now, kid, does it?’ ELLIE KIRZNER LIBBY SCHEIER