The poet Liam Rector, who had dealt with heart surgery and undergone treatment for colon cancer, ended his life on Aug. 15, 2007.
“An atheist in the foxhole”: Liam Rector (1949-2007) more or less knew he was writing his epitaph in that jaunty, ferociously defiant line of his poem “This Summer,” first published in Slate on April 18, 2001.
“This Summer,” with its unweepy first-person description of chemotherapy and its grateful praise of marijuana, is funnier and cuts deeper than ordinary epitaph. The poem can be read as Rector’s profane, worldly, yet soulful credo.
Rector included “This Summer” in his most recent book of poems, The Executive Director of the Fallen World, which was published by the University of Chicago in 2006. There is a pissed-off clarity to Rector’s late poems; their astringent sense of humor is like a strong chemical that strips away hypocrisy to reveal a genuine, unsentimental empathy—extended for example, both to Uncle Eddy, a suicide, and to the grandmother who says, “Eddy simply could not stand/ getting older.”
Gallant and thorny, Liam Rector was a sensualist who could perceive his body’s defeat. That fact does not diminish the sardonic but heartfelt love of life that is the theme of “This Summer.”
between the chair of a barbershop and a beauty parlor,
chemo dripping into the cathetersurgically implanted into my chest, into body,
I resolve to smoke at least a half-ounce
of marijuana when I get home.Perhaps I’ll smoke a pound.
Dizzier than hell must be dizzy,
I’m still able to drive(though will I be able next week?),
and after getting my ticket punched
I roar out of the Farber Clinic(how splendid to have cancer in Boston
and fall heir to the astute care
available here)in the silver sports car I sport
during this debacle,
and heat roars into mewith humidity so deep
it is a theological offense
which I cannot helpbut take personally.
I think I may die without god,
my single comic integritythat I have remained
an atheist in the foxhole,
though I am readyto roar through the gates
if there are gates.
This summer I’ve joined the grown-old,the infirm, the shut-ins, and the bald-headed young
(they the hardest to bear), this summer
starting with chemotherapy and ending,by god it seems almost an ending,
with thirty radiation treatments
which have brought me to my knees.The marijuana works. It clears things.
How lonely it is sometimes to have cancer.The grass is as good as it was
when I was sixteen and found grass made the grass
a bit greener over yonder.Almost as good
as the music I listened to that summer.
This summer I rejointhe ever-new and always refreshing
“Get naked and stay stoned,” Baudelairian crowd
as I plop stoned in the many rocksof a river in Vermont
next to my friend’s house
where we have for so many summersworshipped the backroads
with the sports cars the two of us have driven
since we got the money to get them.In a sports car I have worshipped this summer
the songs I’ve recorded on tape
driving and listening incessantly,thinking this may be my last summer
this summer. This summer
I have conversed with death every minuteand found out I have the talent
to submit, to leave, even to flee,
and, in this, there’s nothing exceptionalabout me. Why, the sidewalks around Farber
are populated with so many about to die,
many of great courage and grim humor and great shufflegetting ready, as they can, to go,
looking like they do, like the wounded of Atlanta
lying around in Atlanta just after the burningof Atlanta in Gone With the Wind.
I am among them.
They are mine, and I am theirs.Our motto: Fight to live; prepare to go.
This summer it is so good
to hear from friends (one of whom I hearjust died: brain tumor) before I drive on out
for another burn of radiation
before I suit myself with another week of chemotied to a portable belt so I can go out
easily to the ocean, to remaining
friends there, before I lean into another joint,a late century life afloat on a sea of loans,
and hear over the telephone my sixteen-year-old
daughter in Virginia saying she now thinksshe will never ever smoke marijuana
because it is, after all,
just another “gateway drug.”—Liam Rector