At Liam’s Memorial Service yesterday in New York, the steps to the altar were lit with candles nestled in strategically placed pairs of Liam’s old shoes. It was one of many quirky personal touches in a program which bore more resemblance at times to a Bennington panel discussion than (thankfully!) to a traditional church service. All that was missing was Liam himself, sitting in the front row and laughing at the tongue-in-cheek insults.
I felt somewhat fraudulent arriving in my wheelchair and immediately being ushered to a position within spitting distance of one of those pairs of shoes. The alternative, however, would have been to look much younger and more able-bodied than my fragility suggested would be prudent. “Liam would take it and grin inwardly,” I thought.
Tree and Virginia were two of the first to speak, and both read eloquent personal tributes to the man they knew as a husband and father. Neither shied away from the facts. Tree bravely said that Liam was neither depressed nor was it a whim. Indeed, both she and later Bob Shacochis talked about Liam’s behavior the evening before his death, when he greeted her on her return from some event dressed in a tuxedo and polo shirt, and danced with her to a song she originally identified as “Mashed Potatoes” (and later discovered was called “Gravy”–this is pertinent.)
Donald Hall talked about his friendship and lengthy written correspondence with Liam, who apparently, on discovering his friend had been chosen to be Poet Laureate, sent him an itemized 85 point list of things he should do during his laureateship!
Jill McCorkle and Amy Hempel took the podium together with a very Bennington memoir of sharing a house at the residencies with Liam and various dogs.
After remembrances by Jerry Winestone, Tom Sleigh, Martha Cooley, Jason Shinder and a poem by Linda Gregg, Liam’s first wife (I assume) Elizabeth Wray, came up. She gave a fascinating portrait of Liam in his twenties, while he was in the process of becoming Liam. (His decision to change his name from Ron to Liam took place while he was with her.) She told an anecdote that stays with me: Liam was working for a book store and they asked him to tidy up the newly designated Romance shelf; Liam did so by taking an armful of books and throwing them in the trash. He didn’t get fired.
Old friend Matthew Graham was followed by the tireless Victoria Clausi, who talked about Liam’s love of music and those wonderful compilation tapes and CDs he would agonize over and distribute. (I have one somewhere–I must look it out and play it again.)
Next up came Bob S. and Sven. Both displayed a certain amount of restrained anger in their eulogies, for which I commend them. Liam did adore to provoke that emotion, after all, and his method (and timing) of suicide was no doubt designed to do exactly that. Bob brought up the “Gravy” issue again. There is this poem called “Gravy” by Raymond Carver. When you consider that ten years ago Liam had his heart bypass followed by his struggle against colon cancer, it seems certain that his choice of song was completely staged so as to evoke the poem. Oh Liam, you old showman, you! Bob also shared the first sentence of the note that was left: “Time to go.”
Lucie Brock-Broido gave a moving and funny account of her thirty year friendship with Liam. Then Askold showed a slide show–pictures of Liam from birth until how he appeared at the last residency, including (and how he would have enjoyed this, in a Church!) a full frontal nude with a quick peek at the actual Rector packet!
After David Fenza’s moving elegy, the service ended with two songs by David Broza. The first was a poem of Liam’s called “In Snow” which Broza had set to a haunting melody, and the second was a folk-rock version of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” In this song Broza had moved around the lines of the first tercet of the villanelle to produce a catchy quatrain which provided the chorus, and by the end of the song he had the entire assembly singing along every time it came around. So there we were, a bunch of literati, in a church, many of us probably for the first time that year, singing the words to a villanelle set to a guitar tune.
Liam would have howled with laughter, and then accompanied someone somewhere for a drink. The representatives of the class of January 2008 repaired to the Thirsty Scholar.
P.S. For another blog entry inspired by the same memorial service written by a man who did not know Liam personally that well (aka my husband) look here.