Choose Life – The Gospel According to Spencer Reece

American poet Spencer Reece. Photo copyright The New York Post

American poet Spencer Reece. Photo copyright The New York Post


















When the ficus beyond the grillwork darkens,
when the rind cools down on the lime,
when we sit here a long time,
when we feel ourselves found, when the red tile roofs deepen to brown,
when the exhausted beach fires with blues,
when the hush of the waves reminds us of regrets,
when the tides overtake the shore,
when we begin to place God in our sentences more,
we will turn at last,
we will admire the evenings fading clues,
uncertain of what the dark portends
as another season ends
and the fabulous visitors depart in luxury cars,
we will savour the sharp light from the summer stars,
we will rejoice in the fronds tintinnabulating down these empty streets,
these beautiful streets with all these beautiful names –
Kings, Algoma, Via Bellaria, Clarendon, Via Vizcaya,
Via Del Mar, El Vadalo, Banyan, El Brillo, El Bravo, Via Marina.

Spencer Reece (1963 – ), from The Clerk’s Tale, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004

What a hymn of praise and hope. This poem has such a sense of life ebbing and receding as the sun leaves the world but it still manages to evoke the beauty that remains, especially the lovely list of names of the empty streets. Such light the poet conjures even as the dark gathers. Such a sense he creates of being in the now, of a wide-eyed seeing that leads to praise in spite of tides that overtake the shore.

If nothing else this poet does not let dark tides of despair and loss conquer him. For example, this gay man, this poet, this priest, this former Brooks Brothers salesman, Spencer Reece, figures his first book was rejected two hundred and twenty five times over fifteen years. I thought I had lots to whine about with five rejections so far of my current manuscript!

Can you imagine – two hundred and twenty five rejections! But then, former U.S. Poet Laureate Louise Gluck accepted it for the Bakeless Prize in 2003. And in a wonderful twist of synchronicity his second book, The Road to Emmaus, published this year, was long-listed for the National Book Award along with Louise Gluck’s latest book which ultimately won the prize.

When I first discovered Reece almost ten years ago it was enough of a surprise to discover he worked at Brooks Brothers as a menswear salesman. Then as I kept track of him a few years later he had become an Episcopalian priest in his forties; then the chaplain to the Bishop of Spain for the Reformed Episcopal Church and for a time served in the Honduran orphanage Our Little Roses. And then last summer I discovered he was close friend of American poet Marie Howe whom he features in the last poem of The Road to Emmaus.

Reece’s poems surprise and beguile me. They are often disarmingly vulnerable and intimate but never swerve into mawkish self-obsession. He manages somehow to create a distance between him (the narrator) and what he writes. He does this I think by the way the poems occupy a dream-like space where as a reader I accept the strange juxtapositions so common in dreams.

Reece achieves this dream-like quality more often than not by his use of fragmentary sequence poems that weave surprisingly disparate stories or elements into a remarkable narrative coherence. I think in particular of his two sequences A Florida Ghazal and A Spring Ghazal in his first book and Gilgamesh, The Prodigal Son and Hartford in his second.

The American poet Tony Hoagland uses A Florida Ghazal, in particular, to highlight a poetic technique he encourages called layering – a way of adding depth and richness to a narrative.

Here is an example of Reece’s coherent fragmentary style used to devastating effect as he documents his relationship with a former partner in the poem Gilgamesh:


As I began to pack up my books,
you adored me still and I loved you still.

The horizon handsawed through the house.
I could not sleep or read. The ducks quack-quacked,
copulating into oblivion as if sex were religion.
When I could not reach what I loved,
the world was rent. I waited until 6AM.
Then I rang my parents, they
whose marriage I had judged harshly,
and they said:

“Come home….Come home…”

“I do not understand poetry,”
Joseph often said. “What’s the point?”
(This charmed me, as if poetry
like religion is a mystery.)

The day I left, and the day after…

I rented a little room in our neighbourhood.
Joseph wanted to see me still, but I could not.

“ Why can’t we be friends?”

I began to write this poem,
employing his real name, I suppose,
as a way of talking to him.
A poem, I thought, is not a fiction.

“You can’t use his real name,”
a member from the Coming Out Group said.
“It’s cruel. He’s not out. He’s not dead.”

Where does bibliography end?

Where does poetry start?

How to construct the architecture of the heart?

“Kindness, kindness matters,” my mother said.

Spencer Reece from The Road To Emmaus, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014

What underlies so many of Reece’s poetic observances is wonderfully described by the words of Isak Dinesen which comprise the epigraph for The Road to Emmaus.

And human beings cleave to the existing state of things. All their lives they are striving to hold the moment fast, and are up against a force majeure. Their art itself is nothing but the attempt to catch by all means the one particular moment, one mood, one light, the momentary beauty of one woman or one flower, and make it everlasting.

Reece is adept at catching these fleeting moments but shares a sense that it is like trying to drink from a fire hose. But one he continues to gulp from with gusto. As he says: The Gospel of John was right:/the world holds so much life./There are not enough books to record it all. And in another poem he adds: …/life, life and more life, all kinds. / I never tire of it.” What an affirmation this is especially in a volume which is rife with images of loss and griefs, his and those of many others.

Here is an excerpt from his tour de force, The Prodigal Son. A great example of the layered complexity of his poems and their vivid lyrical detail. It is also a poem soaked in place which many of his poems are. Especially those set in Florida. This one is a love poem to Miami! And do I somehow hear echoes of O’Hara and Whitman? Perhaps!

from The Prodigal Son

The sea blesses the city the way mothers do –
forceful, pushy, ungraspable, persistent.
Black mangrove shoots take root on the porous chalky rock,
building themselves up like steeples. Listen.
How the waves love what does not love them back

Pedicurists buff the toenails of the sugar daddies in the Delano.
Lincoln Road refines its scarlet seductions.
Bees are sticky with tourism inside the motel rooms of the rose.
Red-orange petals from the Royal Poincianas tint the minutes
with flamboyance. Fushia bottlebrush blossoms
explode with seeds. I will always love my time in this city,
you might say craziest of cities,
delivering its youth in short shorts
and rollerblades with rainbow sweatbands.

City smelling of unzipped things.
I do not think the city will ever be mine.
Beautiful Spanish and broken English spoken everywhere.
How I love that sound,
for it is the sound of people making their way
where they were not born,
maid from Honduras push their carts,
stacking their wrapped soaps,
their cuticles sting with disinfectant,
perspiration staining their uniforms.

O Miami!
For a decade I did not speak to my parents.
Are you listening to me?
I will not bore you with details.
Instead, I will tell you something new.
Listen to me. I was angry.

The sky at the end of the city trembles.
Light and dust warm to cream to pink to lavender.
Miami, it has been a gorgeous day, indeed. Thank you.
How I love your decks, bridges, promenades, and balconies –
the paraphernalia of connection.
How fast the pastels encroach upon the edges.
I have a dinner engagement at Coral Gables at Books & Books
where I will see the poet Richard Blanco.
I hope he will tell me stories of his beloved, broken Cuba.
Nearly five o’clock now, and I am late.
When I arrive, Richard Blanco speaks of Cuba
as I had wished, and the city quiets all around him.
I think, if our bodies house our souls, Richard,
then poets are the interior decorators of the mind.

Spencer Reece, ibid

Reece, gay man, poet and priest of dying babies in ICU, of unclaimed bodies of murdered black men in hospital, witness to men in jail, takes to heart two lines from the title poem of The Road to Emmaus.

Sister Ann quoted from Deuteronomy:
“I set before you life and death…choose life.”

Reece chooses life. Life’s noes don’t stop him. Not even fifteen years of rejections for his first book. Not even his shame and rejections as a boy growing up gay. Not his experiences as a chaplin in a hospital in Hartford.

Something of how Reece somehow stays resilient comes through so beautifully in his poem Midnight where he walks the acres of a treasured family property that will be sold and added to his list of painful losses in his life:

from Midnight

The rest of this panorama is immense, dark, impenetrable, unstructured.
But if you look closely in the left-hand corner,
I can just be distinguished from the blue brilliance of all this land,
a tiny figure, no bigger than a grass blade, a shadow hugged by shadows,
heading home after a long walk nowhere,
encircled by a halo of rocks, trees, crops, rivers, clouds –
by every blessed thing conspiring together to save my life.

Spencer Reece, The Clerk’s Tale, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004

This is a secret the great poets know. We may feel insignificant in the great scheme of things ( a tiny figure). Yet our lives are saved from insignificance when we pay attention to the so-called everyday things of the world. And sometimes if we are lucky enough we will read a poet whose attention to the things of the world will reawaken our attention and by proxy our lives too, will be saved, made recognizable – by a poem. As in some way my life seems reinvigorated, and dare I say saved, by the poems of Spencer Reece.

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