In The Fertile Muck, Irving Layton explores the physical and metaphorical dichotomies between the micro and the macro in the natural and artificial worlds. In doing so, Layton reveals a poetic omnipresence, accessible through love and imagination, which dominates reality.
It is crucial to understand how the persona perceives himself, “I, fabulist” (Layton 2). The mark of a fable is its moral lesson. Hence, the persona actively seeks to inform and improve the reader through his art. Indeed, Layton explicitly notes “until I, fabulist, have spoken / they do not know their significance” (3). Hence “The Fertile Muck”: the fertility of the muck is unrealized without the fabulist. The aphorism of the poem is revealed in the final stanza: “How to dominate reality? Love is one way; / imagination another” (Layton 25-26).The Fertile Muck can be interpreted as directed to the reader; the reader is “my love”. Layton uses this love and his imagination through The Fertile Muck to teach the reader a new reality.
Fables frequently anthropomorphize nature, which is done in the poem through the sentience of the apples. Layton inverts the significance of size for the apple tree in the first stanza, the “brightest apples” on “black boughs” on “those trees” (1, 5, 1). The creative power of the poet surpasses physical space, expounding meaning to the smallest apple. Despite the apples being the smallest, they are the “brightest”. Nature is now associated with the micro. This focus on the natural micro is continued into the second stanza. The subject shifts to an insect, but sentience without creativity is not enough as “Nor are the winged insects better off / though they wear my crafty eyes” (Layton 7).The word of the poet realizes significance and sound to those around him. This is in clear juxtaposition against the meaningless sound of the environment: “The wind’s noise is empty” (Layton 6)
Layton then moves from the micro imagery of nature to the macro imagery of the city, populated by humans. He laments the materiality of human beings: “joiners and bricklayers / are thick as flies around us” (Layton 13-14). The insect metaphor is used to diminish the size of the joiners and bricklayers. This is in clear reversal to the small apples that are expanded in significance. Size is important to these humans as the persona notes “I could extend their rooms for them without cost” (Layton 19). The persona sees his creative powers as a better alternative to the artificial magnitude of the joiners and bricklayers. Yet the persona is rejected for he is an outsider, with a footprint functioning as a synecdoche for the persona and his poetry. “I have noticed / how my irregular footprint horrifies them” (Layton 20-21).
The last stanza melds nature and humanity, blending the micro and the macro, as well as combining the metaphorical and physical. It is through this dexterous comparison and contrast that a sense of henosis is reached. The persona’s final instructions are to “mark the butterflies disappearing over the hedge / with tiny wristwatches on their wings” (Layton 28-29).There is a sustained micro imagery, from the small butterflies to the smaller wristwatches on their wings. The somatosensory sense is engaged by connecting with the macro, “touching the earth” (Layton 30). The plural possessive noun, “our fingers”, includes the reader, binding the reader closer to the persona’s state of mind and body, “like two Buddhas” (Layton 30).Through considering the complex relationships between the micro and the macro, the natural and the artificial, the metaphorical and the physical, the reader achieves temporary enlightenment:
The butterflies’ wristwatches are metaphorically micro, while the finger is physically micro. Both are artificial. The earth is physically macro, while the Buddhas are metaphorically macro. Both are natural. This shift is fundamental and jarring, displacing the reader completely and on all levels. The emergent space is noticeably different from the meaningless sound of the wind, or the un-necessary space of the bungalows. For a moment, the reader understands a poetic omnipresence that transcends and dominates reality.