Close Encounters: Lee McCormack

A slow-cooker evening with poet laureate emeritus Lee H. McCormack.

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The Island's first poet laureate, Lee McCormack. —Lexi Pline

“Lee, you look great!”

It’s a standard greeting, women love to reassure our pals that they’re ready for their close-up. 

And Lee McCormack does look great. His face is oddly unlined, his 74-year-old head of white hair freshly groomed, mustache trimmed, half-moon of beard scarcely visible beneath a long, pale, pensive face. 

“I’m dying,” he tells me dryly.

Well, yes, that IS the news around the water cooler.

Last summer Lee posted on his much-traversed Facebook page that his high-end doctors, after imposing a set of grueling chemo treatments for pancreatic cancer, assured the poet he could proceed to radiation and surgery, but he had only an 8 percent chance of survival. 

Lee pulled out his IV wires, and announced the end was nigh.

We’ve been buddies for nine years, ever since the search for our first poet laureate began. I’d read a steady flow of Lee’s searing lines such as these:

And if I stutter prayers, speech 

splinters against the unsayable 

shatters thought 

impedes conviction 

one more guilty lifetime 

must be lived at any cost

I’d immersed myself in the website of the M.V. Poetry Society through poems about golden light dappling the oak trees, or, as my friend playwright Gwyn McAllister liked to say, “dragonflies in the wind,” so I adored Lee’s stark imagery.

Despite unwanted endings and disasters 

we have created,

today I will attend 

the ceremony of my life with compassion

As local poetry lovers weighed in on their choice for laureate, I had this loopy comment to add: “If Lee McCormack doesn’t win the spot, then God owes Thomas Traherne an apology. Oh wait! … He does!”

Standing in the kitchen, I regale Lee with this anecdote as I pour us glasses of red wine mixed with Pellegrino. He chuckles grimly. I love that he gets the Traherne reference, the 17th century English village pastor who produced a trunkload of metaphysical poems that disappeared until showing up in the 1890s in a booth along the Thames. 

I usher Lee into the cosy dining room of my friend Joanna Fairchild, who is kindly renting me a shared space. I’ve prepared a slow-cooker soup of butternut squash, along with a salad and that kids’ favorite, Texas toast. But I needn’t have bothered with even that manageable feast. Lee is recovering from a bug which his doctors opine is a spinoff his pancreatitis, itself a spinoff of pancreatic cancer. In other words, he’d rather not eat and go home to an evening of tummy agony. 

So we talk more than eat, a running discussion of lucid dreams — of which Lee has many — lost friends, found friends, crazy people, atonement, kindness.

What Lee and I have most materially in common is acceptance of death.

When I raise the subject, Lee’s hazel-blue eyes narrow in that penetrating way of his. In his vaguely Southern twang from a Georgia mom, a Kentucky dad, and some middle school years in South Carolina and Alabama (Wow! I’m surprised he doesn’t sound like George Wallace), he tells me how his own lack of fear has been with him always. 

“I don’t know what’s on the other side, but ever since I read the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ [written in the 8th century] — I’m convinced this is a conscious process back to pure Source.”

Lee and I share a guffaw over what we recall of the iconic 11th chapter. It features the soul in that mythical terrain called the bardo, moving past hungry, blue, giant Buddhas. If you’re lucky enough to remember Who You Are, you’re vaporized up into the clear light of the void. If not, you eventually chug along to the multiple wombs and get hoovered into the one that’s meant for you. Voilè! You’re reincarnated.

Lee says with a slight Southern snigger, “I’m counting on remembering Who I Am!”

Lee’s dream-rich state of mind may have originated when he was 3 years old in 1948, living in Germany with his parents, dad an Air Force officer, when the toddler wandered out back smack into two active beehives. 

Lee remembers floating up to the back porch ceiling, high above the pain: “I was hallucinating the way no kid should ever have to do!”

Now Lee picks up a fork, sets it down, and says that, untold decades later, with a divorce, two grown kids (daughter, 32, living in Fall River with two kids of her own, and a son, 43, right here in O.B.), two considerable careers — one as a builder, the other as a guitar fixer/whisperer — a lost house in Longview succeeded by quarters in Hillside Village, plus, also pertinently, a dear old faithful dog, Mr. Beans, who passed away a year and a half ago. Lee says, “All I need are some extra dollars.” 

He turns to my friend Annie’s electronic device parked on a countertop: “Alexa, find me a bag of cash!”

The blue rings around the small gadget flash and Alexa huffs, “I have NO idea what you’re talking about!”

After he laughs, Lee looks pensive again in the candlelight. “All I need is money to pay my funeral costs, and I want to leave my daughter my car free from debt.” He’d also like to see his poetry published, something that’s not yet manifested, more from the laureate’s lack of marketing acumen; the canon, as so many of us know, is innately worthy.

I think of Emily Dickinson’s 1,600-and-something poems tied up in packets and ready to be burned, but it seems like the better part of valor not to mention this.

Our talk turns again to the bracing help of a spiritual path. Lee ventures a brave sip of his soup, then says, “Poetry is meditation for me. It’s prayer and channeling. It’s about getting my ego out of the way.”

Threatening everything as he studies moods that swing from East

to West, leaving bent compass needles

of salt-burned grasses,

withered and brittle on the shore.

“I’m a solitary person,” he says as he pats his mouth with his napkin. “I try to avoid going anywhere as much as possible. Once, in the summer of 2010 or thereabouts, I still lived in Longview, and I made a pact with myself to venture into town only once a month. I was insanely happy!”

The great thing about my friendship with Lee is that we’re both fierce iconoclasts, and can tell each other anything. I now proceed to relate my intentions of curing him with a thousands-year-old kabbalah prayer I learned in a workshop I took some years ago in Boston. What you do is, you scan two pages of small Hebrew letters, right to left.

When my son Charlie was in his junior year at Boston University, he developed a fever of 104° and was so wracked with pain that his girlfriend bundled him up to the ER. Blood tests were run. He had mononucleosis. The doctors sent him home for weeks of bed rest. 

To his intense dismay, this put the kibosh on a trip with said girlfriend to her family in Slovakia, and a cherished plan to ski in the Carpathians. So what did I do? I scanned the Hebrew letters.

His dad — my beloved ex-husband Marty — flew up from Florida, hired a car, picked him up at the dorm, and brought him home for mama care. Later in the day, I waited at the Steamship terminal. My ailing son came loping over the tarmac. 

“You’re not sick!” I cried. 

“Yeah, I don’t know what the big deal was!” 

I reminded him that the night before he vomited on the doctor’s booties.

Lee listened rapt as I told him how we sent Charlie to Dr. Michael Jacobs, who said, Yeah, he’d contracted mono, all right: “There are no false positives.” Our son had undergone a miraculous recovery.

Could he ski in the Carpathians? Michael said, “I don’t see why not!” 

Long story short, as they say, I sent Lee off into the autumn night with a big hug and a promise to apply the kabbalah prayer. 

In the meantime, his scores of friends are donating to a GoFundMe page set up by Debbie J. Jeanne. In the event he’s not freed up for his own version of a swoosh down a Carpathian slope, it would be lovely if all his dear readers chipped in.

This is the first in a series of “Close Encounters,” where author Holly Nadler will share her visits with interesting Islanders.

1 COMMENT

  1. So many things that could be said. Among other things he has done, Lee has been a fascinating and stellar presence on facebook, where a number of years ago as a sideline he created the Cluck-O-Matic Corporation, an entity dedicated to attaining incredible wealth and world domination through the vending of chicken parts (giblets). Lee’s tenure as Cluck-O-Matic CEO has been inspirational and extraordinary. In the last few years there have been challenges and distractions and illness. It must be said that the Cheetonic Catastrophe in the White House has stolen some of Lee’s attention. But not without benefit. Lee’s comments on greed, human failings, politicians, late-stage capitalism, and the corporatocracy have been unforgettable, caustic, and classic.

    Others are far better able to praise Lee’s poetic work. I can praise his guitar skills. I once ran over the neck of my guitar, an awful thing to do. I took it to Lee at his Longview shop. When he was finished, only a person who knew exactly how and where the guitar was broken could tell that anything had ever happened to the instrument. Craftsmanship like that is a rare and beautiful skill. Decades later, that guitar is still just fine.

    In our lives we are sometimes privileged to have change agents or teachers appear. Sometimes the relationship is formal. Sometimes it’s accidental. Once you encounter such a person, your life is different. You’re braver. You’re freer. Your mind no longer has the shackles of “What will the neighbors think?”. Your mind experiences a phase change. Your feet, both figurative and literal, are more solid on the ground.

    Lee McCormack is such an agent and teacher, and we are lucky and favored that he has been and is among us.

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