Saturday, November 10, 2012

Spencer Reece: Clerk, Poet, Priest

I really don't know why I haven't posted about Spencer Reece before now. His work has been formative for mine, and his faith in faith is an example to all who write in obscurity. Reece quietly practiced his art for nineteen years--submitting his first manuscript to every contest, receiving rejection after rejection. Revising. Then submitting again. Nineteen years. Year one: no. Year two: no. Years three through eighteen: no. Year nineteen: won the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize. What if he had quit after five years? Ten? Eighteen? I would never have read the following poem, would never have memorized it and recited it time and time again on my morning walk.


--"I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place. --E.M. Forester

Pine trees stir in a chorus of darkness.
The lake taps the shore as if to tell me something.
A light rain increases the abstractions, all edges blur.
Dark tilled fields stretch for miles.
The Midwest settles into my chest.
Colts bolt across untouched Dakota acres
alive with the cymbal-smash of affectionate caresses.
Farms, barns, somnolent cows, empty gravel roads and distant houses
make up the landscape I walk in, where once, a long tine ago,
Indians slept and walked, dissolving into the shadows with tenderness.
On Andy Cleland's farm, the one closest to the lake,
where cattails flourish at the water's edge,
there is one huge hill, vacant of shrubbery.
I was told once it was an Indian burial mound
and that was why no tree or bush would grow on that hill.
All these years later and the hill is still bald,
whispering softly as the revolutions of the sea,
echoing with the mouths of the vanquished.
Sheep maraud across the hill's back,
exhilarated by the dirt smells born again by spring,
the wind haunted with the songs of comrades now gone.
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 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.

Of course, I identify with Reece partly because he spent several years as an assistant manager in a men's clothing store--part of a famous chain. The title poem of his first book, "The Clerk's Tale," is a layered combination bildungsroman and diatribe against the superficiality of capitalism. After poignant description after description of his fellow salesmen, customers, and work day, Reece closes the store and the poem with the following lines:

The lights go off, one by one--
the dressing room lights, the mirror lights.
Then it is very late. How late? Eleven?
We move to the gate. It goes up.
The gate's grating checkers our cheeks.
This is the Mall of America.
The light is bright and artificial,
yet not dissimilar to that found in a Gothic cathedral.
You must travel down the long hallways to the exits
before you encounter natural light.
One final formality: the manager checks our bags.
The old homosexual reaches into his over-the-shoulder leather bag--
the one he bought on his European travels
with his companion of many years.
He finds a stick of lip balm and applies it to his lips
liberally, as if shellacking them.
Then he inserts one last breath mint
and offers one to me. The gesture is fraternal
and occurs between us many times.
As last, we bid each other good night.
I watch him fade into the many-tiered parking lot,
where the thousands of cars have come
and are now gone. This is how our day ends.
This is how our day always ends.
Sometimes snow falls like rice.
See us take to our dimly lit exits,
disappearing into the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul;
Minneapolis is sleek and St Paul,
named after the man who had to be shown,
is smaller, older, and somewhat withdrawn.
Behind us, the moon pauses over the vast egg-like dome of the mall.
See us loosening our ties among you.
We are alone.
There is no longer any need to express ourselves.

It is of interest to me that Reece worked several years as a clerk, writing poetry in the middle of the night, forging a direction for a life quite different from that of his fellow salesmen--and then when his poetry gained the attention it deserved ("The Clerk's Tale" is the only poem ever to have been published as the entire back page of The New Yorker) he won a fellowship which allowed him to work part time in the store and enter the priesthood. His new book, The Road to Emmaus is due out in 2013. Its title poem appears in The Best American Poetry 2012, and I heartily recommend it. His first poems, however, will always be favorites of mine. I end with the haunting, "Tonight," whose Everyman ending, for me, ranks among the all-time greats!


You are being born. Feels good.
Something enormous kisses you.
Its eye surveys your revolutions.
Relaxed in your new nudity,

you work your labyrinthine ears,
those perfect disciples,
registering all that hums, ticks.
O you encyclopedia you,

you do not know what I know,
how blank the cold world can grow.
But let the addendums come later.
I listen to the dust from the city

gather on the necks of the saints
at the hospital's exits I exit.
And so I say to you yes you:
everyone's a fugitive. Everyone.

No comments: