Marvin Orbach was born in 1940 in Toronto to Bella and Carl Orbach, who had arrived from Poland in the 1920s. Marvin moved to Montreal with his parents and brother Bernie at the age of 12. After obtaining a Masters in Library Science from McGill University in 1966, Orbach channeled his love of learning and of literature into a 39-year career as a reference and selections librarian at Concordia University. In 1974 he married Gabriella Singerman, a contemporary ballet dancer and teacher who, in 1982, gave birth to their daughter Ariella.
Orbach began collecting English-language poetry books at 17 years of age. From his first acquisition, Montreal poet Louis Dudek’s The Transparent Sea, until Orbach’s death in 2015, his unique collection grew to over 5,000 books, chapbooks, manuscripts and correspondence by Canadian poets writing in the English language. Orbach collected the works and ephemera of iconic Canadian poets – Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton – and of emerging and lesser-known poets, whom he encouraged and celebrated by reserving them a space of equal importance in his collection.
For decades, Orbach’s collection grew in his home in Montreal. In 2002, he donated his 2,400 books and ephemera to the University of Calgary, where it became the Marvin Orbach Collection of Contemporary Canadian Poetry. When Orbach retired in 2005, he began adding to his collection weekly, more than doubling its size between 2002 and 2015. The Marvin Orbach Collection is recognized as cultural property of national importance by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board. The collection, Orbach has explained, was motivated by his love for Canada and his gratitude for the country’s acceptance of his immigrant parents.
Aside from poetry, Marvin cultivated a passion for travel, visiting such far-ranging places as the jungles of Peru and Brazil, the former Yugoslavia and the Israeli desert; he worked and studied Hebrew on a kibbutz for one year after graduating from his Bachelors degree at McGill University. Orbach was also a dedicated birder and environmentalist who often described his “religion” as a that of a deep love and connection with nature. These themes are pervasive in his poetry.
Marvin Orbach died on February 8, 2015, at the age of 74. He was adding volumes to his collection until his final days. Known to be a very modest person, Orbach never told anyone about his own poems, which were found after his passing by his wife Gabriella. On his tombstone is an inscription from one of his muses, Leonard Cohen: There’s a blaze of light | In every word.