Books: Remembering Poet Liam Rector

The book I treasure most is a copy of Liam Rector's last collection of poems, which he handed to me a year ago at Café Loup in the West Village, inscribed, in his firm, rounded print, "For David—the most splendid hipster I've ever known—long may you run." It was the best compliment I'll ever get (long may I run), even though Liam, as he so often did, was really talking obliquely about himself.

Here's the now-notorious example: the poem his friends immediately set in motion around the Internet after he killed himself last month, at the age of 57. With his grandfather's shotgun, he did his terrible best to make sure it would become an anthology piece for as long as they put together anthologies.

Why didn't everyone who knew him recognize that "you" as "I"? Maybe they all did, and maybe I was willfully naive. One friend of much longer standing, when asked how long Liam might have been contemplating such an end, said, "Twenty years." I let myself be fooled by the misdirection about "the ones/Your mother hadn't called." Liam's mother was dead, so how could this be anything personal? So it was odd that of all his poems this was the one I requested the last time I went to hear him read.

Two weekends ago they held a memorial for Liam at St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, where many, many pairs of his handmade shoes had been placed on the altar, each with a burning candle in it. His last book has a poem about them: "English tan, lace-up,/Cap-toe shoes,/Beautifully aged." (The poem begins by calling them "the size twelves/I inherited/When Liam died.") The shoes must have been his idea; he'd left elaborate instructions for his memorial, and the organizers had to do some triage on the long list of speakers he'd requested. (Or should "requested" be in quotes?) His wife, his daughter, an ex-wife, colleagues from the Bennington Writing Seminars (which he'd founded in 1994 and had directed ever since), older friends from graduate-school days at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s, and the poet Donald Hall, who decided he couldn't read his tribute without weeping and instead told anecdotes. One was about Liam's wedding to Tree Swenson, which took place in Hall's backyard in New Hampshire. Liam had "requested" that the men wear tuxedos with red sneakers. Another old friend had put together a PowerPoint show of photographs, including one of Liam in his hippie days, full-frontally naked—not that anyone had doubted he was a man in full. I indulged in a fantasy that Liam himself would emerge from a side door and announce this was all a hoax, but I must not have fantasized hard enough. Toward the end the short candles in his shoes began going out, and I wouldn't put it past him to have specified their length for elegiac effect.

And we went out and did right by his death, as we'd done last month, too, the night after we'd gotten the news. Some of us went to a bar around the corner on Ninth Street, and then joined a gathering on the Upper West Side, at the apartment of a Bennington colleague. From there the many die-hards—the sort of people Liam tended to know—headed back downtown to Liam's apartment, where Tree had provided still more to drink. I'd been afraid to go into his study, where I'd sat with him several times until ridiculous hours of the morning, talking as he deejayed off of LimeWire.com. But it looked so welcoming through the open door—it was where the cigarette-smokers (Liam had been one) gathered. In the closet you could see the shoulders of his many shirts. A poet friend of his urged me to sit for a little in his metal-mesh office chair, where he'd put the gun to his head. It was remarkably comfortable. Some of us had been given a pair of the size 12 shoes.

***

Liam had once been Ronald—that's the handsome, brave-looking young boy whose photograph he put on the cover of that last book, "The Executive Director of the Fallen World." (Beat that title.) Another poet would have been thankful for the alliteration with which he'd been born. Ron Rector: you can picture it on a book jacket. But he had the ear, and the vision, and the saving gift for self-invention, to recognize that Liam and Liam only was his name.

I first met him a few summers ago, when he invited me up to Bennington to give a reading, and to recruit me to fill in for a faculty member on leave. Bennington College gives the writing seminars house room in June and January, between the regular undergraduate semesters. Liam's creation is a low-residency MFA program for fiction writers, nonfiction writers and poets. The residencies are 10 days of workshops, readings, lectures and unofficial hijinks, after which students and faculty head back home to work together by Priority Mail for the next six months. Recently a writer for The Atlantic visited Bennington for several days and pronounced it one of the top five low-residency programs. No surprise there, since the faculty includes such writers as Phillip Lopate, Amy Hempel and Sven Birkerts, but it pleased Liam to see it in print. How much was he revered? After he died I got a letter from a first-semester student who wrote, "I had hoped, and still do, to have something to say that would surprise or give pleasure to Liam." She'd observed him for all of 10 days, and hadn't even had a class with him.

That summer afternoon he drove me around the green country roads in his Mazda Miata, wearing a motoring cap, a tweed jacket and his oversize horn-rim glasses. He believed in London tailors the way I believe in Rustler jeans from Wal-Mart. He'd been through heart bypass surgery and a harrowing bout with cancer, and looked like a million bucks. We swapped stories of our misspent youths, but my handful of acid trips and my few years of full-time dope-smoking seemed dilettantish compared with his adventures. It scared the hell out of me just to hear about them. Point, Mr. Rector. Of course I signed on.

I knew Liam had published two volumes of poetry, but at first I knew him only as the master administrator who'd assembled a cast of master teachers, who never lost his aplomb or his sense of irony, and who somehow got it all to work. He had the work ethic of a drill sergeant and the literary rigor of one of his great models, T. S. Eliot. At the graduation ceremony at the end of each residency—faculty members in caps and gowns with sneakers visible below the hem, African drumming for the processional and recessional—he always read the same majestic and tender passage from "Little Gidding." "Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning," it goes in part—and here's the money quote—"Every poem an epitaph." I was big on rigor myself, and I suspected that, like me, Liam had chosen to embrace it in order to keep the inner tohubohu down to a dull roar. (So, of course, had Eliot.) For him—to bite a phrase from Robert Frost—the work was play for mortal stakes. And Liam and I, both in our 50s, each discovered that the other still had some youth to misspend.

Then one day we were sitting around drinking, and Liam said, "I'm a major American poet, you know." "Ah," I said. I assumed this was an instance of that quixotic vanity he played for laughs—or did he? ("Do you think I'm as handsome as [a Bennington colleague]?" he once asked a bunch of us near the end of a typically long night. No one said no.) He might have been gratified by the New York Post headline: "Top N.Y. Poet Kills Self." But only N.Y.? Still, this preposterous claim sent me to a bookstore, where I bought "The Sorrow of Architecture" (1984) and "American Prodigal" (1994) both of which I read in one continuous sitting. By God, the so-and-so was right. I'd be flattering myself to say I've read a 20th of the poetry he had, but I'd never come across anything quite like this. As the poet Lucie Brock-Broido has said, Liam's work is "the oddest and most hallucinatory romance with Romance in American letters." The very next day, if you'll believe this, I got the bound galley of "The Executive Director of the Fallen World" in the mail. So naturally I thought they'd just keep coming.

But to assume that, I had to avoid taking the poems seriously in a nonliterary way. Like many poets—including Eliot himself—he was moving from a formidable complexity toward a lucid plainspokenness. "The Remarkable Objectivity of Your Old Friends" is from "American Prodigal," but this new book was an unmistakable valedictory. Or unmistakable now. It begins with a poem on the suicide of his uncle Eddy—"Eddy simply could not stand/Getting older," the poet's grandmother tells him—and contains a spinoff from Byron that anticipates the letter he was to leave for his wife a year later. The medical details are true, and the I is an I at last:

Maybe the very force of Liam's suicide poems was itself a misdirection. I told myself that if he could write about the darkest place so powerfully, so movingly and so craftily (look at that word "breathtakingly" again), didn't that mean he'd mastered and transcended it? His so-potent art and all that. And he mistook me for a hipster? On the other hand, just because it was real didn't mean it wasn't art.

And maybe it was the force of Liam's personality that made it unthinkable to question what he had decided. ("All right, Liam," one old friend finally said at his memorial, as if Liam had beaten him at arm-wrestling.) Unruly, playful and sentimental as he was, he loved power—I suspect he enjoyed it when people noted his resemblance to Saddam Hussein—and understood how it worked. Before establishing his benevolent banana republic in the hills of Vermont, the Executive Director of the Fallen World had been an administrator at the NEA. And he had a master's degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Was this a real obsession or a kids' game? No doubt. He was a boy, always—luckily, young Ronald couldn't be renamed away entirely—but he did a far more plausible imitation of an authority figure than our current president, which I suppose is faint praise. At Bennington's twice-yearly student-faculty orientations, he always had an AV technician play a clip from the film of "Glengarry Glen Ross": the scene in which Alec Baldwin delivers his brutal "Always be closing" aria to a room of beaten-down salesmen whose jobs are on the line. Liam never bothered to explain. If you didn't get it—that in coming to Bennington you'd landed yourself in the big leagues—then what were you doing here? This wasn't a man you tried to talk out of how he'd chosen to live his life. Or, in the event, not to.

Liam told me, during that last summer residency, that he refused to endure again the healing tortures of modern medicine—"healing" if you were lucky—or to put up with an invalid's life. He told me about the shotgun. He didn't tell me that this wasn't hypothetical. I shouldn't have had to be told. We'd driven up to my place, 45 minutes from Bennington, and climbed a hill behind the house to look at the view; I'd had to slow down so he could keep up, and he'd had to take nitroglycerin. But Liam's own certainty—and of course his certainty was about a hypothetical, wasn't it?—shut me up. I didn't rat him out. And what good would it have done? Like his projection of authority, this must have been partly an impersonation: the Hemingway guy who'd rather die on his feet than live on his knees. But even if it was, I felt I had no right to challenge his certainty, any more than I'd have given him the right to challenge mine if I ever developed any. Had I abandoned him at that moment? Had he willed me to abandon him? Which of us was a character in the other's script? Wasn't that question what our relationship was about? Isn't it the question behind every human relationship? But whoever's script it was, we acted out the most benign form of male rivalry: each of us cast the other as the most splendid hipster he'd ever known.

One of the speakers at Liam's memorial noted that abandoned is one of the most frequently recurring words in his poems—look again at "So We'll Go No More"—perhaps second only to "going." The word was a lament, an accusation, and also a confession: "abandon/Before being abandoned." His ex-wife recalled him as a "bolter": they'd be walking down the street and suddenly he'd be gone, to return hours later with an apology. Well, no wonder:

But Liam's sense of on-my-one-ness isn't just a personal "issue": who doesn't have it? (I almost said "Who doesn't share it?" But that's the sort of prettification that Liam—free-speech advocate though he was—would have found obscene.) As he wrote, "We all/Have the talent for leaving." Liam was a man alone, who recognized and honored my on-my-one-ness as I recognized his. Isn't that what "hipster" means?

When I look back at last summer in Bennington, it now seems clear that it was his loving farewell to his friends and his colleagues, and to the community he had created. He and I and two other friends shared the Dog House, the one house on campus where dog-owners were allowed to have their pets with them. (Until the vigilant Tree came up to join him, their dog Keeper—an incongruous but somehow-just-right Cairn terrier, like Toto—was, let's say, accident-prone.) Liam went to every reading and lecture, he stayed up late to savor his friends sitting around smoking and drinking and playing guitars and singing, and he smoked and drank and sang along and of course talked. I managed not to think about his long, long daily naps on those summer afternoons, from which he'd come downstairs bleary-eyed and talking again. He reminds me now of Burris in B. F. Skinner's "Walden Two," looking down with equanimity from a hilltop at the utopia he'd made, and understanding it could now run itself without him. He could trust his friends to be remarkably objective—hadn't they'd learned from the master? It's just that his timing was off. A little too soon, buddy. Another 50 years, say, and it wouldn't have bothered any of us a bit.

Books: Remembering Poet Liam Rector | Culture