Essay: Always Be Closing in America
reviewed by Richard Scheiwe
—in memoriam, Liam Rector
In an email forwarded to me that Liam wrote a day before his suicide, I came across a brief quotation he had included:The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living. The line is from Auden's “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”. Liam Rector knew much about influence and mentorship, as he was very close to Donald Hall and a protégé of his for many years. The words and thoughts (and, in Liam's case, a bounty of quotations) live on primarily in the mouths and minds of those closest to the deceased. There is nothing more satisfying than being close to someone so articulate and dedicated to those in his circle—someone so dedicated to aesthetics and the plight of the poet.
Sink Review was begun by Doug, Dan, and I in Chicago back in 2003. Upon hearing of the “idea” (because, in New York when we all first started here, it was still more of an idea than anything) Liam became excited at the prospect and pushed for its continuance. Liam wanted writers to write the books they didn't see on the bookshelf; he wanted writers to create the journals writers didn't see on the bookshelf; he wanted writers to write the story or the poem that would last forever. All in all, Liam wanted writers to utilize everything that was American about the letters in America: you have the freedom to create and establish, so don't sit back and bemoan a supposed Philistine world of letters. Create the art you want the world to hold and inhabit.
One of my fondest memories of our time together was our first thesis meeting. It was a few days before winter break was to begin at New School, and the holiday season was in full force. Union Square was, as it perennially is, busting at the seams with firs; an already bright city with big lights was choked with new lights of varying colors, crisscrossing every street and avenue; and, as has been the case recently, the blizzard was yet to come and could be felt in the air. I had decided to get off the L at Union and take a walk to Liam's apartment that he shared with Tree Swenson, the Mark Twain over on 12th and 6th. Although it was a weeknight, the contempt of one's work week was loosed thanks to the holiday season, at least for the moment. I, as most of my friends and classmates, really had no gainful employment and relied heavily on scholarship to do what any other grad student would do. But, the sense was shared among all inhabitants of New York.
When I arrived at his apartment the sense of the city spilled over into the
room. I was greeted by Tree and his daughter, home from university, who were hanging Christmas lights in the living room. If I had anticipated such a gathering, I most likely would have avoided the meeting. After the briefest “hello” to each, Liam whisked me away to his fateful study and the two returned to tradition. Liam's study was your typical writer's workplace: bookshelves with books on multiple, varied subjects; a nice Persian carpet; a leather sofa; a computer desk looking out onto the street; and his annoyingly yapping dog, a little terrier named Kenyon.
As this was our first thesis meeting, needless to say there was little business discussed that night. We smoked, had some drinks. Upon sitting deep into his leather couch, Liam parlayed the awkward “hellos” into a wonderfully wayward and explicit anecdote about his wish to time travel (the specifics of which will be omitted for the sake of the children, so use your imagination). I couldn't believe this was our first thesis meeting, a first meeting at an attempt at what I believed would become my first book. It was at that moment, in the holiday spirit, and with his wife and daughter just out of earshot of his choice of story, that I knew I could never let go of this guy. I left feeling the possibilities of the poet, the inspiration, like I hadn't felt in a long time.
Unfortunately Liam decided it was time to leave, to let go. And we grew close from that meeting on, and it is because of this closeness that his words will live on in my gut and my students' guts and my friends' guts for as long as the sky is wide. I am and will be forever grateful for his help in getting me classes to teach at CUNY and for getting me interested in literary criticism. I am particularly honored to have been “introduced” by his poems and his words about my poetry in a recent issue of Poet Lore, his final publication of poems.
More than anything, though, I will always remember how much he helped me, and many others, understand the happiness in life and the importance of being a maker in America. He had a bear of an appetite for life. And, as he would say incessantly, you gotta always be closing, stealing a line from Mamet.
Liam's life has closed, but his memory in the guts of the living is just now beginning to open.