Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Into the Vortex - post-death sentimentia

In Memory- Liam Rector
1949 - August 15, 2007

Photo: Liam Rector (left) and Ed Ochester, June 2007, Bennington College campus. (photo credit: Woody Lewis)

Liam, you died on my classmates' birthday. We all remember where we were when we read the email - at work - what? how? why? It was health, you shot yourself. Almost two weeks ago. I write while things are still fresh, while death isn't dead yet, your email address can't be deleted from my address book - not quite yet.

I sat with Liam and Ed Ochester at graduation dinner in January and we were talking about suicide. Liam said when he was 17 he thought of killing himself and then decided to live the next year with no regrets and it was the best year of his life so far and then he turned 18 and decided not to kill himself. We jokingly talked about how to kill yourself and not leave a mess, i.e. jump off a bridge or something. He said it would be horrible to kill yourself in a hotel room and have the maid find you there, all that stress on her. It sounds horrible to talk about this now, we were in a mood that wasn't down, just being honest but I didn't take it as a sign that he was thinking about it. I knew he battled depression but he seemed to be doing better with his book out, and he asked me about the program a lot and looking back I think he was seeking more self-assurance than usual. He seemed to look at all of us sitting up there at graduation with long looks that I just felt something going on in him but it didn't make sense and now it is making sense. I just knew him a short while, I only really got to know him a little when he was my instructor. I started to know him as a friend, a mentor. He handed out CD compilations of his favorite songs each term - the "sentimentia" collection. He played the Glengary Glen Ross damn DVD - which I absolutely LOVE - to "Always be Closing" - his "see you in a minute" letters, his wry wit. I'm angry. I'm sad.
The need to speak.

Liam talked about this as he read my poetry manuscript on cassette tape which was included with the first packet. He did this for each one of his students. Entire manuscripts in his voice, the best line editing I could have had, off the page, which is where it starts. Liam Fed Ex'd my packets back every time, always almost late, but always on time. That moment of anticipation every month, to see what he might say in our letter back and forth. I play the first tape, my ms first draft and he says: " listen for each poem's need to speak. Rilke talked a great deal about the need to speak in a given poem and if you listen for that need to speak, that motive, that source, that animating scene of instruction, propulsion, what brings it to speech, what brings it to the page, if you listen very carefully as a reader, as a listener, you'll hear in that your own need to listen and any consequent reader's need to listen. I'm reading it as a stranger in a bookstore, who comes at it the first time. So, how to listen: with your bullshit detector, any false words, false line, false image, false stanza, anything that doesn't contribute directly to the presentation. As you go through what of these poems you're going to in fact use in your manuscript, the ones that sound strongest, the ones that sound weakest, and the ones that are having conversations with each other….their need to be juxtaposed, or revised, or alchemized towards each other. The semester is a meditation upon the book - this manuscript - you're thinking what begins, what middles and what ends this book, this ms, this thesis that I'm putting together. Listen to the point of utter boredom and distraction listen to it as a reader it has its own independent life, approach it as a reader, put it together as a writer, with the arc of communion with the reader, that sacred creature that we're going to be considering the entire semester. Read one thing after another, without commentary….. "

Liam loved convertibles and I have a convertible too, I wish I would have had a chance to ride in his when he was still doing that with his students. He wrote me on cream colored stationery with his name and address imprinted at the top; you don't see that around much anymore - "The Mark Twain" - his apartment/hotel. He took the time to respond, with three or four or more pages, that life of letters we all came here for. I remember him calling me to tell me I'd been admitted into the program - that personal phone call everyone gets, a message and waiting a whole day for him to get back to me, and not really knowing what the hell I was getting into in this program but I knew it didn't matter, I'd figure it out somehow.

I look at the reading list for my 4th term and remember I still haven't read Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" - one of Liam's favorites along with Hart Crane. It's sitting on my bookshelf now. The DVD of the BBC series is shipped from Netflix and I have watched three of the many episodes, how can I stand the fall from the dreams, the controversial ending?

I am pushed by this act to start living my own reckless life again. "We are sending you off as a woman of letters, as a player, as a person who does not only apply for jobs but creates them. As both a poet (which means maker) and as a producer." Liam did a fantastic job of creating this program. The vortex - what the hell was he talking about at orientation? I wanted practical details, he jumped into a fantasy that I didn't understand - not yet, anyway. He wrote on the board:

Vortex - an indestructible node or cluster.

Thinking about it now, that describes Liam. He sucked me in to the center of the program, it is all or nothing at Bennington and he pulled out of me poems I never knew I had, by saying very little.

As I connect with my classmates and instructors and fellow writers we feel that weird Bennington solidarity. We are together, yet apart, all of us scattered until we come together again. We want to be together to grieve, yet we are apart. Liam's memorial is in New York, a sense of closure, but mostly so we can go on, reminisce and see what will happen along with the rest of the Bennington family….Ed, I will smoke a cigar with you, Liam, this drink is for you, fellow classmates, instructors, friends. I miss him terribly. Cheers.

The End of the World.......

The Remarkable Objectivity of Your Old Friends

by Liam Rector

We did right by your death and went out,
Right away, to a public place to drink,
To be with each other, to face it.

We called other friends—the ones
Your mother hadn't called—and told them
What you had decided, and some said

What you did was right; it was the thing
You wanted and we'd just have to live
With that, that your life had been one

Long misery and they could see why you
Had chosen that, no matter what any of us
Thought about it, and anyway, one said,

Most of us abandoned each other a long
Time ago and we'd have to face that
If we had any hope of getting it right.

From American Prodigal by Liam Rector, published by Story Line Press. Copyright © 1994 by Liam Rector. Reprinted by permission of the author and Story Line Press.

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