Richard Sommer found poetry everywhere, in a deep breath taken during a tai chi class, in the arc of an arm slicing through air, through burying his face in the rough coat of his beloved dog – and in the prostate cancer that would spread to his bones and eventually claim his life.
A creative writing professor, poet, fierce environmentalist, Buddhist, flautist, husband and father of three, Sommer, who died on Feb. 13 at the age of 77, decided to write Cancer Songs soon after the prostate cancer was diagnosed. For most people, it would have been an oxymoron, the notion of a deadly disease and singing in the same thought. But he did not want to give in and hide his head under the covers. Instead, he wanted to explore his cancer as a new life experience, as something he could dig in to and try to understand. He wanted to be able to laugh, not so much in the face of cancer as through it; to frame his poems so they’d speak to others living through similar experiences. Because living – really living, with all of its crazy facets and curveballs, was his raison d’être. He faced things with his head high, eyes wide open and a sometimes rueful smile playing on his face.
“Life goes on, whether you do or not,” he told the CBC’s David Gutnick in his last interview. “What can you do but laugh and live in the moment?”
He found pleasure in small things like playing the flute for residents of a long-term care facility, the pungent scent of spruce or unlined paper. Unlined because, as he said in an interview last year with Poetry Quebec, “lines are deadly!”
His best poems, or at least the most challenging ones, create questions and images one never before imagined. The day after he was told he had cancer, he wrote: “Listening to a harpsichord/finessing the Inventions/in aerial interlace with swallows/over the pond in twilight/…the rustle and thrum of their passing.”
Carolyn Souaid, a Montreal poet who edited Cancer Songs for Signature Editions, read Sommer’s first draft in one night and fell in immediate, unconsidered love with it. “Here was a book about illness and death that was really more about life and the pleasures of living every moment to the fullest,” she said. “Even the darker poems dripped with life. I could hear Richard’s voice, as though he were reading it to me.”
Richard Sommer was born in Minneapolis on Aug. 27, 1934, the first of Henning Sommer and Ida Jerome’s two sons. His father deserted the family for a rodeo rider after the birth of Sommer’s brother, leaving his mother, a social worker and family therapist, to raise her boys in the thick of the Great Depression. It wasn’t easy. As she struggled to make ends meet, Ida sent young Dick, as he was called, to Texas for a few years, to live with his maternal grandmother, Eva Jerome, a scrappy activist who stood no taller than 5 feet and was cast off streetcars when she tried to ride in the segregated sections.
He returned to Minneapolis when his mother remarried. His stepfather, Jack Davies, was everything his natural father was not – responsible, fair and concerned about his new family’s future.
That future included a PhD from Harvard University and a job offer in the English Department at Sir George Williams University in Montreal (later to become Concordia). He jumped at the opportunity because he did not want to live in the Cold War climate of the United States any longer. He was an opinionated man who cut quite the unconventional figure in front of his class, tall and thin, with thick, shiny hair and a style that veered to the contemplative, complete with the occasional Tibetan spinning top as a prop. He was there for 34 years, becoming one of the first professors in the creative writing department.
“Richard was a teacher in the truest sense in that he made you think about things, to question what was real and what wasn’t,” said poet Endre Farkas, a friend and former student.
He was bluntly honest, even when it was uncomfortable. Like when he told Vicki Tansey, who would become his second wife, that he was in love with her. After all, she was a former student and he was married at the time. But they had connected as professor and student when they’d first met in 1963 and after she’d graduated, she turned to him for advice when a relationship fell apart.
“I trusted him and knew he could give something back,” she said.
He was blunt with his wife, too, telling her about Tansey even as he agreed to go to marriage counselling. But it didn’t work. All through that winter, though he and Ms. Tansey didn’t see each other, they exchanged love letters every day that helped stoke the fire. In September, 1967, they moved in together to politician Louis-Joseph Papineau’s former carriage house in Old Montreal for $85 a month.
So began their life together, filled with performance art, a sojourn in B.C. with a dance company, a psychedelic van and a final landing in a rambling home on a dirt road outside tiny Frelighsburg in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. There would be three children: Jonathan, now 42, a lawyer and playwright, Anna, 40, an actor, and 29-year-old Moksha, a singer and songwriter.
He wasn’t a hands-on, ‘let’s go out and toss the ball around’ kind of father, so much as one who was empathetic and listened. Like when he shaved his glorious hair in support of Moksha who contracted head lice when she was 7 and had to have her hair cut off.
He wrote like a fury, producing works such as Blue Sky Notebook and left hand mind, an exploration of the differences between the left and right sides of the brain.
“He was right-handed and he wanted to see what would happen if he created with his left,” said Tansey, a dancer, teacher and performance artist. “He wanted to see if he could tap in to the possibility of a different kind of thinking. Essentially, it was a way to step into a form that was not his language, for he tapped into ideas he didn’t know he had.”
In a way, it was typical for a man who was fearless when it came to nature and self-expression, from poems dedicated to Milarepa, an 11th-century Tibetan yogi, to Cancer Songs and his decision, upon moving permanently from Montreal to the Townships, to volunteer as a game warden.
“You move to this wild territory and you’re thinking, ‘Ah, peace.’ And then you hear the poachers’ shotguns,” Tansey said. “Richard wasn’t a hunter, but becoming a game warden was a way for him to get closer to what was happening out here and gain an entrée into the community. It was hard to have much clout, though, because the wardens couldn’t arrest anybody.”
The fight for Pinnacle Mountain hit even closer to home, as it loomed 712 metres above them, undeveloped and home to all sorts of wildlife. Sommer was upset by a proposal to turn the mountain, once home to the Abenaki people, into a tourist and recreation centre. He saw it as a threat to rural life and to nature itself. Over seven years, he rallied long-time area residents and newcomers to the cause – a successful effort that was chronicled in a 1995 National Film Board documentary, The Pinnacle and the Poet.
In the end, Sommer met his death with as much curiosity and forthrightness as he’d lived it. Earlier this year, as Tansey visited him at the respite home where he’d once played flute to residents, she whispered that she missed him at home.
“You’ll get used to it!” he replied.
It was a blunt reminder that life goes on.
Richard Sommer is leaves Vicki Tansey, three children and three grandchildren.
Special to The Globe and Mail