The Executive Director of the Fallen World
Liam Rector
University of Chicago Press, $22.50 (cloth)

Poet, educator, and founding director of Bennington College’s Graduate Writing Seminars, Liam Rector died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound last August. In recent years, Rector had been successfully treated for colon cancer and heart disease, and many noted his preoccupation with the theme of surviving illness and facing down death in The Executive Director of the Fallen World, his last and finest poetry collection. Whatever the mysteries surrounding Rector’s suicide, the book is full of fallen, disillusioned personae, many of them confronting terminal illness and death, and all of them easy to identify with the poet himself. But Rector’s hard-won insight and incandescent gallows humor lighten the way, intermixing pathos with practical wisdom, tragedy with relentless sass. Often his mordant irony and slang diction prove to be his best defenses against despair, as in “So We’ll Go No More,” which presents a dying speaker’s valediction to his lover: “Cancer, heart attack, bypass—all // In the same year? My chances / Are 20%! And I’m fucking well / Ready, ready to go.” For Rector’s speakers, the past is a looming presence. “Now” presents a tender, comic, and ultimately beautiful overview of life as a lesson in disheartenment from early childhood to death, while “First Marriage,” “Beautiful, Sane Women,” and “Our Last Period Together” all document failed relationships with a humor so delicate that it can barely conceal the vulnerability it seeks to disguise. Rector attended six different colleges and lived in 48 different homes; part of the American promise, as he sees it in these poems, is that, if we keep moving from place to place and from relationship to relationship, we will somehow find happiness. In “Song Years” he writes: “For years I lived in a kind / Of wistful song world where / One foot was always out // The Door, almost like a sailor / Ready, anxious even, to decamp / Once more for the sea…” It would have been exhilarating to see where he moved next.