This piece originally appeared at The Millions on May 2, 2012.
I try to recall what made me run out and buy Spencer Reece’s debut poetry collection. The book had been recently published, so this would have been 2004. Back then, I still got my news in paper form, the daily New York Times. I enjoyed especially the Sunday morning ritual — cover to cover, coffee and breakfast. I needed rituals back then: newly divorced, living alone for the first time in 10 years, past 30, with a demanding day job; and anxious that I’d never get back to writing, that it was all a silly fantasy I should put to rest. Sunday with the big fat New York Times was soothing somehow. I even cut coupons.
I do a quick search at the Times online, and there it is: a piece on Spencer Reece, Sunday, May 9, 2004. And yes, now I remember, it was in the Style section. The silly headline: “O Khaki Pants! O Navy Blazer!”
Like many – like the editors of the Times – I was taken with Reece’s life before coming to know his art. It was his personal story – the romance of it, the near-tragedy, the “stylish” way in which it all turned around for him, one night, when he came home from his job as assistant manager at Brooks Brothers to a message on his answering machine from Michael Collier, chair of the prestigious Bakeless Prize committee. Louise Glück, then Poet Laureate of the United States, had selected his manuscript as that year’s winner.
He’d been working full-time at Brooks Brothers for several years, first at the Mall of America in Minnesota, then in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. The book had been submitted to contests and publishers, in various forms, and rejected, some 300 times over the previous 13 years. Spencer Reece was 40 years old when he got that call; he’d been writing poetry since college, had sent out thousands of submissions to magazines (three at a time, 10 magazines each round), diligently, year after year. Even so, he’d lived and wrote mostly outside the literary world.
The title of the book – and of the collection’s most well-known poem – was The Clerk’s Tale.
I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier,
selling suits to men I call “Sir.”
Not long after that phone message, another call came, while Reece was at work, from Alice Quinn of the New Yorker. “I was fixing a pair of pants for a man and his wife, the wife was very upset,” Reece recalled. “I couldn’t stay on the phone long, because I had a pair of pants and the woman was getting more and more upset.” The New Yorker published “The Clerk’s Tale” in June 2003, devoting to it the entire back page. Even without knowledge of Chaucer’s original — the tale of a peasant girl’s harrowing trials of love and loyalty — Spencer Reece’s Cinderella story was irresistible.
And we needed such a story. Well, I did. The romance, the sense of “close call,” i.e., what if he had never won any prize or come to anyone’s attention, but continued to labor in the dark – 40, 50, 60 years old — a melancholy retail clerk, making $30,000 a year, estranged from family, with two master’s degrees (in Renaissance poetry from the University of York, and in theology from Harvard Divinity), living in suburban Florida. It could have happened. It does happen, all the time. We need these stories to counter the inevitability of obscurity; we need stories that kindle our sense of hope, and possibility.
We needed Reece’s story so much that we began to own it for ourselves, at times adjusting and embellishing.
As I delve into research, poring over interviews and profiles from the past eight years, I find inconsistencies: it is notably difficult to piece together the chronology, to get the narrative right. Here, we have him graduating Harvard at 27, then entering a mental hospital at 29, after an acrimonious break from his family; another account has him closer to 31 or 32 at the time of the break and breakdown. Had he spent three full years in the mental hospital, or was it three years living with the nurse and her husband who took him in afterwards? In one version the root of acrimony was money and alcoholism; in another, the central conflict was Reece’s homosexuality. It is also unclear whether Reece did not work at all while he lived with the nurse, or if he did this and that – radio work, freelance writing. Was it eight years at Brooks Brothers by the time he got the call, or was it closer to five or six? In one account it is Collier’s message on the machine; in another, it is Louise Gluck herself.
One profile has Reece working on his poetry “in secret,” his “only literary encouragement an epistolary friendship with famed poet James Merrill.” (He met Merrill “through friends,” one article states. In a later interview, we learn that he met Merrill through Frederick Buechner, though we don’t know how Reece knew Buechner.) Elsewhere we learn that Annie Dillard was also an early encourager, and eventually a champion of The Clerk’s Tale. By his own account, Reece was once a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award and received consistent encouragement from the nurse, Martha, and her husband; from the poet Clare Rossini who lived across the street; from writers involved with The Loft literary center where he took classes and won an award; from the Minnesota State Arts Council from which he’d won an artist’s grant. “I read with Galway Kinnell, that was early on, so I want to paint an accurate picture,” Reece said in an interview. “There were little blips, things that were encouraging and that were happening. It wasn’t like nothing was happening. But I wanted more to happen faster.”
In truth, I wouldn’t blame fans or journalists for altering or exaggerating the story. I understand why we need it to be as dramatic as possible. I wouldn’t even blame Reece himself if he occasionally magnified certain truths over others, or melded details for narrative effect (“much I knew I would forget or remember in a way my own / which would not exactly be correct, no, not exactly” he later wrote in “The Road to Emmaus”). With such compelling bare bones, we need the story to rise and fall in a particular way, we need cause and effect to play out convincingly. I am reminded of a visit I made to my MFA alma mater a few years ago, upon the publication of my novel. My former professor had asked me to visit his workshop, to encourage the students and be a kind of poster child for “Yes, you can.” The students asked good questions about my Road to Publication. The day after, one of the students confided in me that among the after-chat was a horrified sentiment along the lines of It’s been 12 YEARS since she graduated? What TOOK her so long? So much for poster child.
But Reece is, in many ways, a poster child for the Post-40 Bloomers series. Although, I rather dislike that expression, which implies, literally and otherwise, a two-dimensional representation. My efforts to track Reece’s story in a linear, progressive way – and finding this challenging – showed me that his story is messier than that, fully three-dimensional, with diversions and detours, hills and valleys, all along the way. How else could it be?
Reece lived a lot of life as he worked on his poems; in fact he’d lived many lives. He’d aspired early on to be a poet, then a poet-slash-hospital-chaplain (in the footsteps of George Herbert and John Donne, whom he studied at York). Discouraged from pursuing that particular path after finishing his degree at Harvard Divinity (“A religious career seemed impractical,” he wrote, reflecting in 2008, and “I was immature”) – he spent the next few years living alone on a farm owned by his family in Minnesota, writing poetry, managing a bird sanctuary, and writing for his father’s medical newsletter. When the break with his family came, he lost his bearings, along with any financial stability, and checked into a mental hospital. In our romanticized version of Reece’s story, this was rock bottom, and thus the epiphany moment, the turnaround. Perhaps. Or perhaps the years following were even more difficult, and unstable. At any rate, there is a beautiful story he tells about meeting nurse Martha: they became friends when he read to her Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.”
“Much life has gone into the making of this art, much patient craft,” wrote Louise Glück in the Foreword to The Clerk’s Tale.
Its light touch and connoisseur’s passion for surface notwithstanding, this is a book of deprivations and closures [...] I do not know a contemporary book in which poems so dazzlingly entertaining contain, tacitly, such deep sorrow.
The average contemporary reader may find poetry difficult to access, even more so to “evaluate.” Glück describes Reece’s work in terms of “tone” – one of “artless naturalness[…] so capable of simultaneous refinements and ironies as to seem not a tone, not an effect of art, but of truth.” I love this about Reece’s poems – an erudition that is sensual; formal beauty that is also earthy. We see this especially in the collection’s two ghazal cycles – a form characterized by 5-15 couplets per cycle, traditionally incorporating a rather strict rhyme-and-refrain scheme. But Reece plays with the form and makes it his own, moving audaciously between high and low registers:
Hey you! Come unto me! Let the meadow march into my mouth!
I’m due for a moist trembling emotion, don’t you think? Well, don’t you? [...]
The animals are back and they’re singing their prothalamia.
It’s about time. And get a load of that forest! It’s squirting filigree.
In the remarkable “Florida Ghazals,” we are immersed not only in this tone, in this earthy erudition, but also in story and character, an ensemble cast (including Reece’s cousin who was murdered at 23, the local prostitute, an escaped convict, and Elizabeth Bishop) whose fates are both remote and hauntingly proximal.
Dolores teases her blonde hair a foot into the air, her hair the one perfection in this low-income town, a conspicuous example of Darwinian sexual selection.[...]
Weather. Weather. How’s the weather? When I speak of the weather is it because I cannot speak of my days spent in the nut house?
Juan sinks into the swamp thick with processed excrement.
Nude paper ladies sinking like cement, silencing him. [...]
All this beauty. Butterflies at the ankles. Birds, birds.
When hurricanes come with their bad names, they ruin this place like madness.
Elizabeth Bishop was five when her mother went mad.
They locked her other away in Nova Scotia and Elizabeth never saw her again. [...]
It was dark and my cousin was alone. They dragged him to the river.
It rained for three days. They could not find him; when they did, no one knew his name.
We see Reece’s comfort with informal formality – a grooving box-step — in Reece’s rhyming poems as well. From “Chiaroscuro”:
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 see here too the quality of Reece’s attention to minute detail, blooming into metaphysics – the rind cooling on the lime blooms into time passing; the browns and the blues and the hush of the waves bring forth memory’s regrets; through the composition of sentences, our spiritual state emerges. “I admire his studied attention to details” says the narrator of “The Clerk’s Tale” of his co-worker, “an old homosexual” who refers to himself as “an old faggot.” In this case, such details include “a layer of Clinique bronzer,” “manicured lacquered nails,” “his breath mint in place.” At the end of “The Clerk’s Tale,” “Sometimes snow falls like rice,” and then the remainder of the poem is written in the imperative, the reader implored to
See us take our dimly lit exits [...]
See us loosening our ties among you.
We are alone.
Here, the metaphysics pivot to me, the reader, to the meaning of my life as this attention to details becomes my own responsibility, to See us. As in many of Reece’s poems, our engagement becomes simultaneously intimate and expansive, personal and universal.
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
and if a new friend should take your arm
do not define the gesture, no,
let the moon spread shampoo all over you,
allow the palm trees with their shallow roots
to lull you down the broad avenue
The narrative of Reece’s last nine years – since the Bakeless, since that first New Yorker publication – is indeed remarkable, and yet still, also, textured and surprising. He continued to work full-time at Brooks Brothers for another two-plus years, through The Clerk’s Tale’s acclaimed publication. Then, in 2005, he won a Guggenheim, an NEA fellowship, and the Whiting Award. He decreased his retail-work hours to four days a week, then eventually to three days (“to keep my benefits”). On his off days, Reece began volunteering at a nearby hospice center – in his own words, “whispering into the ears of the dying.”
After two years of volunteering, Reece came to a decision; or, as he put it, felt “called.” He wrote: “Perhaps thirteen years in an Episcopal prep school, a seemingly dead-end graduate degree, twelve years in retail, a first book published in middle age, a priest could make. Why not? [...] Each door I open at Hospice, I move closer to something brightly intimate.” In 2008, he left Brooks Brothers, Gerstenberg (hospice) Center, and Florida for Connecticut — his birthplace (Hartford), and also where he went to college (Wesleyan) – specifically for Yale Divinity School, with the renewed intention of becoming a priest. Reece was ordained in the Episcopal church in 2011.
And all the while Reece has continued to write poetry, answering finally to the hybridized vocation he envisioned in his early twenties. Since 2008, he has published primarily in the New Yorker and Poetry magazine, and his second collection, The Upper Room, is due out with Farrar, Strauss & Giroux in 2014.
The story of Reece’s life comes to us now mostly through his poems – “The quietness inside my father was building and would come to define him,” he wrote in the 2011 prose poem “The Manhattan Project,” about his father and paternal grandfather, an engineer who worked on the bomb. “I was wrong to judge it. Speak, father, and I will listen.” (In a 2011 Yale Divinity School alumni note, Reece writes of “reconciliation with family.”) In two narrative poems, “The Road to Emmaus” and “Gilgamesh,” both written in linear first-person fragments, he explores the intimate relationships of his life — with his mentor and AA sponsor Durrell Hawthorne (who died in 2003, the day “The Clerk’s Tale” appeared in the New Yorker), and his five-year love affair with an older man – both as retellings of Biblical narratives. In an interview accompanying “Gilgamesh,” Reece reveals that he continues to engage formal conventions while also personalizing them: “I need the poems to be understandable to me” and also, “Memoir bores me. But in poetry, the autobiography becomes something else entirely, somehow selfless [...] I am unconventional but always trying to adhere to convention.” He could just as easily be speaking about his work as a priest.
At Poets.org, Reece’s official, complete biography currently reads: Spencer Reece is the chaplain to Bishop Carlos Lopez-Lozano of the Reformed Episcopal Church in Spain. In 2014, I suspect that may once again change. Reece will be 51 then, both deeper inside and further outside the literary establishment. I look forward to both the poems and the publicity. I can see the Times article now, perhaps in the Book Review, perhaps in the Religion section: “O, Holy Poet.”
Sonya Chung, founding editor of Bloom, is the author of the novel Long for This World (Scribner 2010). Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Tin House, BOMB Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Sonora Review, FiveChapters, Asian American Literary Review, and the anthology The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, among others. She is a recipient of a a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, and the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Fellowship & Residency. Sonya is also is a staff writer at The Millions, Associate Editor of The Common, and teaches fiction at Columbia University.