In 1977 at the age of 26 I developed an enlarged pore in my right cheek. I had a vain hope that it could just be my little secret - totally unnoticeable. Libby had recently arrived from New York and, presenting herself as a fan of my poetry, had asked me to have a coffee.
I sat there with her, face to face, perhaps a little too cocky, perhaps a little too close and she took her index finger put it right up to the enlarged pore and said ‘What’s that?” That was me crumbling, me blushing. Such pokery from Libby was something I soon learned to accept and admire about her.
A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, and Student University of New York (M.A., 1971) she had solid academic grounding in political theory which was far beyond the naïve idealism I had come to via Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. She had been an activist at Berkeley in the sixties and had more recently been up to some Trotsky deeds in Israel which had resulted in her being expelled. She was always recommending that I read the Marxist essays which had changed her life. I recommended Neruda.
Soon I became Libby’s little piece on the side. Her husband was having numerous affairs and I was her sweet revenge. Yes, it was that era when one could be just friends and have mutual, uncommitted wild sex. This, I think, is much underestimated as a good binding force for allies. And of course, after some time, love does begin to grow.
Eventually Libby introduced me to her own poetry. She had published two chapbooks in New York but had had to use a pseudonym because her Trotsky sect frowned upon the writing of “bourgeois” poetry. I wasn’t at first wild about these poems. They were totally apolitical. Plus, I’m sure I wanted, to shelter the dynamic which had me as the doted upon poet and her as the generous ‘older’ woman.
One day she showed me a book that was not a collection of Marxist essays. It was Andre Breton’s surrealist manifestoes. Probably one of the most important books of my life. My own writing to that time certainly had qualities of surrealism drawn no doubt from the culture of the day. But this book blew it wide open for me. Suddenly I was freed. Gushing reams of imagery. Laughing my head off as I wrote some of the best poetry I have ever written.
I don’t know whether it was Libby’s eventual confession to her giant husband or the fact that I became briefly monogamous that ended the sexual part of our friendship. It hardly mattered. There’d been no big falling in love thing and there was no falling out either. The important part was the friendship continued.
Soon, perhaps with some influence from me, (or was it Neruda) Libby started to write some very good poetry ? poetry that melded her surrealistic streak with her erudition and her politics. Poetry that couldn’t be denied. Extreme, challenging, tender poems full of wit and wild beauty.
When Libby’s first book, The Larger Life (Black Moss Press, Canada) was published to ecstatic reviews how did I react? Like any true friend I tolerated her success. As she tolerated mine. Yes, I could be a little jealous, but so could she. I joyfully expanded the meaning of ‘friend’ to include ‘fan’.
And Libby was not an easy one to remain friends with. That Pokey quality was not appreciated by everyone. She had a big mouth and ‘chutzpah plus’. In polite reserved Canada she didn’t hide and back down or couch her opinions in grant-getting veneer. She took risky ideological stands and stuck with them ? often to her own detriment.
When her son, Jacob became seriously ill just as grants began to dry up,Libby, now a single mother, reacted with an incredible burst of energy. She started The Toronto School of Writing where she went on to employ not only me but numerous other writers. She became a technical writer for a science magazine. She secured a teaching position at York University. She became a literary columnist for the Toronto Star (where I got a very good review)and somehow, thankfully she continued to write and publish impassioned poetry. Sky, (The Mercury Press) is one of my all-time favourite books of poems. What a great example she was for me and so many others.
Libby spent her last year on earth battling a breast cancer which was diagnosed far too late. Her treatment began with a double mastectomy. Afterward she refused chemotherapy. Instead she sought donations from friends to fund an approach using alternative medicine. She expressly asked that no-one contact her personally as she needed all her energy for the battle that was to come. I respected her wishes as much as I could. I did call twice, but was only able to leave messages of support. I was told though by her main caretaker that in her last days the mention of my name was one of the few things that could bring a smile to her face. I am very grateful for that.
My friend Libby Scheier passed away in Oct. 2000. I have found this hard to fathom. I still have dreams where it’s all a big mistake and she is happily still alive. But alas, it is not so. She has gone - perhaps to point out holes in the faces of the gods; maybe to aggravate angels or plead the case of the poor and oppressed whom she cared so deeply about. I have not been able to write about her till now.
The friend dies but not the friendship. That ship sails on. I am still friends with Libby. I am a friend of her poetry, her stories, and her memory. I am also a friend of her son, Jakob Scheier, who credits his survival entirely to his mother’s research, care and hard work. He now travels the world and has begun to publish very good poems of his own. Books of Libby Scheir’s you should read:
The Larger Life. (Black Moss Press, 1983). Second Nature. (Coach House Press, 1986). SKY - A Poem in Four Pieces. (Mercury Press, 1990). Saints and Runners - Stories and a Novella. (Mercury Press, 1993). Kaddish for my Father. (ECW Press, 1999).
Robert Priest has published fourteen books of poetry and prose including The Man Who Broke Out Of the Letter X (l984) and The Mad Hand (1988), recipient of the Milton Acorn Memorial People's Poetry Award. In l992, Mercury Press released Scream Blue Living. Robert is also the author of three plays including Minibugs & Microchips which was the winner of A 1998 Chalmer’s Award. His children’s works include Daysongs Nightsongs, a book/tape package for children. Finally, in true bardic tradition Robert is also a successful singer/song-writer.