Shakespeare and sex, Richard Poirier

Richard Poirier died a few days ago. I recall his deep voice and his kindness to someone who didn't know what a true man of genius he was. Of course, the New York Times details his accomplishments and then I understand how lucky I was to call him my former professor and possibly my friend. He was my parent's friend. He cared about both of them deeply and I wish my father's depression had not meant they lost touch. For the thirty years my father was a Professor of English at Rutgers, I heard stories about Richard and his cool life in Manhattan. When the brownstone owned by a member of the Weathermen exploded in New York sending one of the bombers naked into the street, Richard lived next door and supposedly hung out with Dustin Hoffman while the police tried to figure out what the hell happened.
Poirier invited us to stay in Lillian Hellman's estate on Martha's Vineyard back in the late sixties. Both my sister's were at camp so I was the sole daughter who got to snoop around Hellman's stuff, eavesdrop on her housekeeper telling my appalled and delighted mother how mean she was and how she wouldn't allow her to attend church because she hated religion. Poirier was Hellman's literary executor. He was welcoming and nice without being condescending to a overly verbal, lonely teenager.
When I was a freshman at Rutgers, Poirier taught the basic Shakespeare course. It was an amazing class with Richard delivering thrilling lectures that changed all of us from puzzled readers to active participants. Poirier emphasized the sensuality and eroticism of Shakespeare and we freshman were completely enthralled. He kept revealing parts that referred to sexual coupling and we giggled and blushed and wrote notes. One day he leaned down from the stage and spoke to me directly. He asked me about my parents and my experience as a student. I was freaked out but also incredibly proud to know him.
My sister Catherine had him as her PHD advisor and supposedly he told my father after she died she was the finest Emerson Scholar he had ever known. Poirer was not given to hyperbole. I like to think they are together somewhere laughing over some esoteric literary joke.
The last time I saw him was at Fairway, the grocery store on the Upper West Side. He asked about my parents, my writing and my life. I recall I told him about the birth of my son Luke and he was very kind. He was a genius but he was also a patient and gifted teacher. I feel lucky to have known him. I need to remember I have been inspired by brilliance and be grateful.


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