Here’s a suggestion, for the people in your life who read or write poetry: The Clerk’s Tale (2004) by Spencer Reece.
There can be little doubt that Spencer Reece is one of the more important Episcopal priest-poets to emerge in recent decades. He’s something of a Melchizedek in the poetry world, hailing not from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop or The New Yorker circles, but from the mall, at Brooks Brothers, where he worked for many years, fashioning a poetics that is entirely his own.
The Clerk’s Tale, his first book, was written before his ordination. Its poems are culled from a variety of experiences in Minnesota, Florida, and New England — places that inhabit (and haunt) his poems. The title poem, with its reminiscence of Chaucer, tells the story of two men who work at “an expensive clothier” in Bloomington’s Mall of America: one called “the old homosexual” and the other, the thirty-three-year-old narrator.
This is the stage (all the world’s a stage, and all of America too) on which Reece displays the quotidian drama of the two friends, lighting each other’s cigarettes, exchanging platonic gestures, attending to customers, refolding clothes, and gossiping. Beneath the surface is a tale of consummate commercial loneliness, ameliorated only by the vestigial hope of friendship that sails north, against all odds, like a lone frigate into the icebergs.
The poem, like the clothier’s shop, is a parade of mannequins, specialty knots, expensive fabrics, and tidy habits, all of which mask the inevitable unloveliness of aging and decay — the bunions on old, tired feet, with no one left to wash them. But like every clothier’s, the poem also has many mirrors, and Reece invites his readers to “watch us” go about their business and to see therein reflections of their own superficiality. So much is compressed here: the Gospel of Mark, Dante, Augustine, Eliot (there’s lots of Eliot, perhaps to a fault) — not to mention Chaucer — and all somewhat effortlessly, with little artifice.
The poem “Cape Cod” may be of particular interest to readers of Covenant or The Living Church. It begins, charmingly:
Inside everything was Episcopalian —
the wicker chaise lounges, the small spotted mirrors,
the rattan dining room set, the tears.
You, dear Episcopalian reader, know the house Reece is speaking of. The poem continues in its thickly ironic way to tell the history of a family through this house — a lamentation for the decay and loss of generations, not unlike the closing lines of Ecclesiastes. The poem ends with perhaps the most haunting couplet of the collection:
The Massachusetts sky was small and cold.
Our house was sold.
The whimper is, of course, about the loss of a family vacation home. But it is hard not to see, in the poem’s first line, a hint that the lament is also ecclesial. If the family is “a little church,” what else can the selling of this Episcopalian house portend but the inevitable emptying of our churches, the unattended tears of our parishioners, unrequited family tragedies too many to number, the rending of the Episcopal body, and, finally, the selling of our worship spaces to commercial real estate (let the reader understand)?
Desolation does not have the last word in these poems. But there is no attempt to flee the reality that we must pass through a death — personal, familial, ecclesial — in order to save our lives. Since the publication of The Clerk’s Tale, Reece attended Yale Divinity School and was ordained to the priesthood. His second book, The Road to Emmaus: Poems (2015), just emerged and seems to promise in its title the possibility of new “recognitions” on the way, the finding of new family and new homes.
A reading of Reece’s title poem in this second collection, set in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reveals the same narratives of loss: the closing of convents, the death of an old friend, and a host of unanswered questions. Hope waits unannounced in the wings.
Whether one exults in the tender humanity of these poems, or finds in them a fitting lamentation in a season of loss, Reece’s voice is unique and worth hearing — a cri de coeur of the human spirit longing for the sacred in a new world grown too old with the times.
Michael Cover’s other posts may be found here.
Photo by Lawrence Schwartzwald via the Poetry Foundation.