Oct 2009
A Haunting: Somber Meditations for Halloween
Posted in Musings by Tavel at 9:37 am | 2 Comments »

It has always struck me as peculiar that Americans (myself included) celebrate Halloween—a holiday that has grown exceedingly morbid and ghoulish—with candy, costumes, and whimsical delight when, at its very core, it is a holiday centered on death. I’ll spare us all the history lesson, as there are several cultural variables that have led us to this odd state of affairs where kindergarteners dress as skeletons and go door-to-door begging strangers for chocolate. Among all the rubber spiders and vinyl Spiderman outfits, though, I’ve caught myself meditating on the work of Thomas James and Liam Rector, two poets whose very lives were haunted, and whose writings don’t garner nearly the attention they deserve.

Thomas James was a young Illinois poet who, by most verifiable accounts, committed suicide at the age of 27 in 1974. His only book, Letters to a Stranger, was published shortly before his death, and the few reviews it garnered were unpleasant to say the least. Yes, the undeniable influence (and at times blatant imitation of) Sylvia Plath is palpable. But the sensuality, the lyricism, and the raw maturity of his voice are staggering. Take, for instance, this first stanza from his ghostly dramatic monologue “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh”:
My body holds its shape. The genius is intact.   
Will I return to Thebes? In that lost country
The eucalyptus trees have turned to stone.
Once, branches nudged me, dropping swollen blossoms,
And passionflowers lit my father’s garden.
Is it still there, that place of mottled shadow,   
The scarlet flowers breathing in the darkness?
You can read the rest of the poem here thanks to the Poetry Foundation, but the fluidity and authority of the language, from that stirring statement that “the genius is intact” to the lushly personified scarlet flowers are all quite remarkable, especially for a poet in his mid-twenties. I’m grateful that after thirty years of obscurity and being out-of-print, James’ Letters to a Stranger was finally reissued by Graywolf Press, and though we may never know the full details of James’ premature passing, his poems endure.
To say that Thomas James and Liam Rector have much in common would, I think, be an indefensible statement of epic proportions. And yet, when I consider Rector’s suicide in 2007 at the age of 57, after three well-received volumes of poetry and a long career as a respected academic (he founded and directed the writing seminars at Bennington College), I feel as if these two poets—if nowhere else but in the synapses of my brain—share some wavelength, even if that wavelength is an inconsolable isolation that led them to take their own lives. Perhaps no Rector poem haunts me more than “The Remarkable Objectivity of Your Old Friends,” which eerily foreshadows his own suicide, but was published nearly two decades earlier in his first book, American Prodigal. At fifteen lines, it is a quick but stirring read. I’ll include it here in its entirety:
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.
The diction is conversational, blunt, and supple, and the tercets slow the poem’s unfolding to a cadenced dirge. That said, however, the poem is full of little wonders, such as the friends calling “the ones/Your mother hadn’t called,” and of course the terrible truth that “most of us abandoned each other a long/Time ago.” One could do worse than to study this and some of Rector’s other poems that the Academy of American Poets kindly reprints online.
I’m not arguing we can’t all enjoy a fun-size Snickers and Linus’ fervent faith in the Great Pumpkin this weekend; far be it for me to ruin anyone’s holiday. It might do us writers all some good, however, to take a moment to remember those among us who were not merely haunted one night of the year, but every time they reached out for a pen.

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