by Amy Weldon
A calling comes gradually, and more quietly, than we might think. We imagine instead Paul on the road to Damascus, shocked out of his old beliefs and life and name by the divine. Don’t we all want that voice from the sky, that instruction on what our mission on Earth will be, that beacon inside us lighting our path every day? The reality, of course, is that lives accrete over time—by accident and serendipity, by the jobs we take to pay the bills, by the longings we feed or suppress, and by the intentions and dreams that don’t pan out along with those that do. The career of 51-year-old poet and Episcopal priest Spencer Reece is an illustration of this principle, and of the way that time and aging help us accept the more slow and subtle calling as reality and use it to deepen our art.
The son of a nurse and a pathologist, Reece described his childhood in Minneapolis as “not particularly religious”: although he attended an Episcopal high school, “my fellow classmates still harassed a young gay classmate until he committed suicide.” Reece’s own sexuality fueled ongoing confusion about whether his attraction to religion could be relevant in a world “where churches were closing every day” and where AIDS and homophobia created fear even in church: “Shame cast a long shadow in those days,” he has written. “Fear, too. People didn’t want to drink from the communion cup for fear of catching the virus.”
Feeling lost about what ministry might mean or involve, Reece eventually “found [himself], with [his] college degree and theology [master’s] degree, at the age of thirty-three, working in retail at Brooks Brothers” in the Mall of America in Minneapolis. “All the time I was in retail,” he says, “I worked on a book of poems in my off hours. It was my little church of ideas. Some kind of sanctuary amidst all that noise.” Work on the book preceded and continued alongside a retail career that flourished; as Reece continued to build what he called a “secure little life,” working for Brooks Brothers in Minneapolis and then in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, he submitted that first book manuscript to publishers and national competitions 300 times in 15 years, meeting only rejection.
Then, at 40, Reece received notification that that book—The Clerk’s Tale—had won the 2004 Bakeless Prize for Poetry and would be published by Houghton Mifflin. Guggenheim, NEA Fellowship, and Whiting Awards followed. With literary success and some financial flexibility, Reece decreased his time working at Brooks Brothers and devoted more time to a volunteer activity that became a back-door return to ministry—caring for patients in hospices and emergency rooms. “Each door I open at Hospice,” he wrote, “I move closer to something brightly intimate.” In 2008, he decided to enter the Masters in Divinity program at Yale, and in 2011 he was ordained an Episcopal priest.
At this point in Reece’s story, poetry and ministry begin to draw and twine together, taking the narrative, literally, to an unexpected place: Our Little Roses, a girl’s orphanage in Honduras. Initially sent there by his bishop and frustrated with his inadequate Spanish, Reece became quickly committed to the place and his ministry there, which this past year included teaching poetry to junior high- and high-schoolers at the bilingual school behind the orphanage. At Our Little Roses, Reece first developed a “dream” which is now becoming a feature film about the orphanage and his work there, made possible in part by a Fulbright fellowship. In December 2012, Reece wrote:
The dream kept coming to me. It wouldn’t let me be. I saw public readings, a website, recordings, images, the girls being remembered. I saw a documentary film being made. My dream was real as Jacob’s dream in Genesis, my stairway was leading directly to seventy-four orphaned girls. But the Fulbright language exam had been hard and that old priest at Yale’s voice had stuck in my head. I thought I’d lose again. Why does negativity cling like a burr to the mind? I vowed to try not to say things like that to people, just as I vowed not to tease people the way we’d teased my gay classmate in high school. Words, mishandled, damaged people, and worse, killed them. But then, the unexpected happened once more: I won the Fulbright.
If I have anything to do with it, Our Little Roses is about to be known by the world.
Along with the film will come a book featuring the girls’ artwork and poetry. Known as “Padre Spencer” at the orphanage and on its blog (ourlittlerosesfilm.blogspot.com), for a year Reece taught poetry and painting in the school. “There is such hope in this place,” he says in the “teaser” trailer for the film. “The girls go from abandoned and abused to studying dentistry and engineering. And maybe, just maybe, there’s a poet here.”
Reece’s second collection, The Road to Emmaus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), bears the traces of his passage through the disparate worlds he’s navigated in his life. “Among Schoolchildren” describes his arrival at Our Little Roses, and what he finds:
One girl had been found on a coconut truck.
She had lived on coconut juice since birth,
had trouble speaking, preferred not to be held.
Two sisters had been left at a street corner on a sheet of cardboard;
their mother told them to wait, then never came back.
It was a landscape both porous and uninviting.
“Rain steadily fell against the tin roofs and colored the chapel windows to plum,” he writes in this poem, “Sweat stained my T-shirt the color of a steeped tea bag.” Alone, at night, he considers vocation, and distance:
The clock on the nightstand was a face I could not reach.
A world widened in me. But what of my Protestant professors
rearranging furniture in their well-appointed heads,
talking of Hooker and Baxter, hunched in their sepia-colored libraries?
In the dark of my room, I pondered them.
Was it true, what they said, that a priest is a house lit up?
And there the poem ends, on a question, refusing resolution. Yet for poets and priests, as Reece knows, uncertainty is not an impediment to but a condition of life, something to feel one’s way into, forward, and through. And in an orphanage, amid suffering that can be described or narrated but never fully known, a lit-up house–beacon, refuge–is a powerful and necessary thing.
The Road to Emmaus is full of such moments of vision, consideration, and awareness. Reece’s voice tends toward understatement, which means that as we overhear this poet and minister witnessing ordinary realities in ordinary time, we lean in closer to listen, and see, experiencing the power of witness ourselves. “ICU” describes premature babies Reece encounters as a hospital chaplain—“blue, spider-delicate in nests of tubes / A Sunday of themselves, their tissue purpled, / their eyelids the film on old water in a well”—concluding, simple and moving, “It is correct to love even at the wrong time.” “At Thomas Merton’s Grave” plunges us into a clear, direct scene:
Behind the warped door that sticks,
the wood thrush calls to the monks,
pausing atop the stone crucifix,
singing: ‘I am marvelous alone!’
“How kind time is,” this poem ends, “altering space / so nothing stays wrong: and light, / more new light, always arrives.”
Henri Cole has written of Reece, “He is a formal poet, but his form is not bloodlessly perfect. He is unafraid of smudging things to get us closer to the truth.” This quality is well displayed in Reece’s sonnets—for example, “My Great-Grandmother’s Bible”:
Faux-leather bound and thick as an onion, it flakes —
an heirloom from Iowa my dead often read.
I open the black flap to speak the spakes
and quickly lose track of who wed, who bred.
She taped our family register as it tore,
her hand stuttering like a sewing machine,
darning the blanks with farmers gone before —
Inez, Alvah, Delbert, Ermadean.
Our undistinguished line she pressed in the heft
between the testaments, with spaces to spare,
and one stillborn’s name, smudged; her fingers left
a mounting watchfulness, a quiet repair —
when I saw the AIDS quilt, spread out in acres,
it was stitched with similar scripts by similar makers.
I love the “quiet repair” this poem itself enacts amid cultural landscapes that can seem intractably divided these days: Christianity, “the heartland,” quiet domestic worlds of women cooking (that onion!) and making and mending, and the lives ravaged by AIDS. Grace is not a bad word for that kind of quiet repair, that sort of reconciliation and (perhaps) peace that can include us all.
A looser sonnet is “The Fifth Commandment” (that’s the one about honoring your father and your mother), which paints an affectionate, sharp-eyed portrait of aging parents from one middle-aged brother to another:
Tonight they talk of their last vegetable garden,
count out their pills in chipped cereal bowls
(you know the ones), check their sugar levels,
bicker over books misplaced, tchotchkes
lost, their tongues like well-used church keys.
The final lines swerve to a different tone that picks up a note of realism and melancholy without losing the affection:
Brother, last night half the garden nearly froze.
The dash between their dates is nearly closed.
Reece’s longer poems extend this observant gaze over wider spaces, sifting and sorting among fragments to assemble stories where meaning lies not only in images but in silences. “The Road to Emmaus” draws its title from a postcard on a nun’s office wall of two disciples “gossiping about the impress of Christ’s vanishing” and “argu[ing] about whether to believe what they had seen; they were restless, back and forth the debate went— / where there is estrangement there is little peace.” That office is also the setting for Reece’s account, to the nun, of his relationship with a lost friend: “Durell was dead, I said, and I needed to make sense of things.” As the poem unfolds, we see Durell and Reece—older and younger gay man—proceed through a difficult but valuable friendship, traveling on together, like the two disciples. “Whatever the case,” Reece writes, “he listened, he listened to me. / I missed his listening. / Listening, Sister Ann said, is a memorable form of love.” The longer poems don’t always come together—“Monaco” might have been better as a short story, character-driven and with less sensory texture to the lines than some of the other poems here—but they demonstrate an elastic, expansive range that widens the scope of this skillful, engaging book.
Spencer Reece’s story shows that goals can entwine and prop each other up in ways we might not expect: unexpected success in poetry at 40 catalyzes becoming a minister after all, which leads to poetry and ministry springboarding the stories of orphaned girls in Honduras out into the world. I had never heard of Our Little Roses before I started writing about Spencer Reece, but now I have, and I’m going to do something with that knowledge. In this we see again: life is collateral in its damages but also its gifts. To describe the mutual gravitational forces of objects, a physicist colleague of mine quotes Paul Durac to her students: “When you bend down to pick a flower, you are moving the farthest star.” (You actually are, since you are adjusting that network of gravitational forces between flower and star.) In a similar way, the paths of lives may intersect and support one another in ways no one expects.
“Did I choose Honduras? Or, did Honduras choose me?” Reece has written.
Who knows? In Honduras I was introduced to the poem, “Los Pobres,” by Roberto Sosa. It begins: “The poor are many / and so/ impossible to forget.” True to the poem, and the spirit of Roberto Sosa, who himself died in May of , I have been unable to forget those 74 orphaned girls. I believe poetry—that most invisible of the arts, the poorest of the arts some might say—can raise up the story of the girls.
Ultimately, Reece’s work and his story ask us to consider that even if a calling does not arrive with a Paul-style shock, or an angelic annunciation, it is no less present, real, and valuable. Even—perhaps especially—in uncertainty, a sense of purpose can reveal itself. As he writes in the long prose poem “Hartford: Visions,”
Who can know the story of the one they love most? I will stand at my watch post, and station myself on the rampart. Paul wanted to be bound to the good and the pure; where it would lead him he could not be sure. Paul was depending on the story of a Jew he hardly knew.
A native Alabamian, Amy Weldon is currently associate professor of English at Luther College. Her short fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, Best Travel Writing 2012 (Solas Press), Cornbread Nation 2: The Best of Southern Food Writing (UNC Press), Shenandoah, Keats-Shelley Journal,The Carolina Quarterly, and many others. She blogs on sustainability, spirit, and self-reliance at http://cheapskateintellectual.wordpress.com.
Amy Weldon’s previous features: Diana Athill: The Sufficient Self, Growing Into Compassion: On Anna Sewell and Black Beauty, Abigail Thomas: Accidentally Deliberate
Click here to read the previous feature on Spencer Reece.