Liam Rector Memorial Service
St. Mark's Church in the Bowery, 131 E 10th Street , New York , NY
Saturday, Sept 22, 2007 - 3 pm
The first thing that struck me was the shoes. Liam's shoes, 8 to 10 pairs, maybe, all across the steps of the altar, lit with candles. Would they catch on fire? He was there in that spooky presence of his, but not there. Some of us half-expected him to come in to say this was a cruel joke, but of course it wasn't.
After being forced to wait until 15 minutes before the service to get in, the ushers finally relented. Why they did this I don't know, maybe they were lighting candles. It was raining lightly, there was a bit of a downpour earlier in the day. In line I talked to several classmates and instructors.
Friends and family spoke:
Tree - "It wasn't depression. It wasn't a whim." Liam lived life in quality versus quantity. Poetry was "the third thing" between them. They were married 16 years. The last night of his life he donned a tuxedo with a polo shirt, they had a nice dinner, he asked her to dance. Did she know he was planning this? She didn't say. She seemed composed. I'm wondering how she will be a few months from now.
Virginia Rector - Liam's daughter from another marriage, age 23. She also looked composed and read from a prepared script. She says she never got to say goodbye. She quoted a line Liam always said (and that I remember from Bennington as well) "Life's not fair."
Tree and Liam were married in Donald Hall's backyard, before Jane Kenyon was sick. Black ties and red sneakers.
Donald Hall spoke, sitting in a chair instead of the podium. He couldn't read anything prepared, he just talked, he sounded upset. He and Liam wrote letters back and forth via mail. Three of them came after his death. Movies, clothes, shoes. One time Liam made a list for Donald of "85 suggestions of the duties of Poet Laureate."
Jerry Winestone - Liam lived his life his way. (Did suicide give him control? Probably.)
Ed Ochester was stuck in the Pittsburgh airport. I found out later there was a bomb threat and the whole airport was closed down. Some kid with a circuit board around his neck as an art statement?
Bob Shacochis - Bob, thank you for being honest. No sentiment from you, as usual. You are angry he left us, we are all angry and you put it out there to admit what everyone else was avoiding. You wrote a letter to Tree. You always were one of my favorite Bennington instructors, because you have a sarcastic, skeptical, witty view of life, and don't take shit from anyone. And you're not taking it from Liam now, either. Liam had the song "Mashed Potatoes" playing on his computer at his desk when he shot himself. Was that a hint for the poem "Gravy" by Raymond Carver? You talked to Tree about this. A clue left behind. I have trouble believing that Liam would 'stage' something to leave clues as to the motive behind his death, besides his suicide note. I don't know him well enough for that.
The poem "Gravy" was published in the New Yorker three weeks after Raymond Carver's death at 50 in 1988. I see the similarities here, I don't know what Liam thought of Carver but I'm sure he was an influence. Liam survived his 20% chance to live in the battle for colon cancer and added a few more years. That is, until he decided life wasn't worth living due to more health-related issues.
by Raymond Carver
No other word will do. For that's what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman.
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. "Don't weep for me,"
he said to his friends. "I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure Gravy. And don't forget it."
Sven Birkets - also addressed the anger. "Friends don't do this." I agree. No goodbyes, no warnings. Sven mentioned James Dickey's poem "Lord let me die, but not die out." I was enamored with Dickey's poetry as an undergraduate student, the way he wrote about nature and memory. Sven, you will carry us on as acting director of the life of letters.
Others spoke. Jill McKorkle, Amyl Hempel, Tom Sleigh, Linda Gregg, Martha Cooley, Jason Shinder, Elizabeth Wray, Matthew Graham, Victoria Clausi, Lucie Brock-Broido, David Fenza. Two hours later, Askold Melnyczuk showed a group of slides on St. Mark's white wall on the altar. Above the shoes. Titled "American Prodigal #6". Liam's baby and childhood photos, his wife, daughter, with Tree. The full frontal nudity shot thrown in for good measure. Liam's birth name was Ron, he changed it to Liam.
David Broza performed "In Snow" (Liam's poem and music by David) on guitar, and sang. A fitting ending.
Afterwards, the church lights stayed dark, we got up, talked, moved to the outside patio area with water (no drinks, no toasting). A Bennington reunion, in a bit, this sad occasion that has brought us here. St. Mark's had a balcony and it reminded me a bit of Tishman, except Sven and Liam weren't in the balcony like the old men in the muppets. Some went to nearby bars. I walked back the few blocks to my hotel (the Carlton Arms) to pick up my bag and head to Penn Station for the train to New Haven , Connecticut to meet another friend and fellow alum.
It had stopped raining. I touched the Buddha at the Carlton Arms entryway for what - luck? wishes? Left a penny for my thoughts - like everyone else.
I decided to bring along Donna Tartt's novel, "The Secret History" to read while on the planes and trains. I finished it the day after I returned to Minneapolis . Tartt models the fictional college of Hampden after Bennington College with references to the Commons, the dorms and other Bennington landmarks. It is a murder mystery, a close knit group of six sequestered undergraduate students studying Greek philosophy. It was a fitting time to read the book, one I had always meant to read but was put on the back burner due to other projects. "We don't like to admit it," said Julian (the Greek instructor in the novel), "but the idea of losing control is one that fascinates controlled people such as ourselves more than almost anything. All truly civilized people - the ancients no less than us -- have civilized themselves through the willful repression of the old, animal self. Are we, in this room, really very different from the Greeks or the Romans? Obsessed with duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice? All those things which are to modern tastes so chilling?"
No longer a mystery. Those shoes - others will fill them but no one else will walk in them.