Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Spencer Reece, _The Road to Emmaus_

HERE I WAS not too long ago (August 10) getting snippy about how dull the poetry coming out of FSG can be--only to come across this just a little while later, which turns out to be excellent.

(Another danger sign--"Log-Rolling Ahead"--was that Reece had blurbed Richard Blanco's Looking for the Gulf Motel, which I had recently read, and Blanco had reciprocated by blurbing this. Whenever I notice this going on, I'm less inclined than I might have been to give either blurb much credence. But here too my skepticism turned out to be unfounded. )

What is excellent about it? Well there is the title poem, which appeared in Best American Poetry 2012 and is the main reason I took a chance on this volume. It's a poem of some length, a little over twenty pages, about a man Reece knew years ago, apparently through AA or a similar program, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  "Durell" is his name in the poem; he is a bit of a mess, despite coming from a somewhat distinguished family and having received an elite education.   Things just didn't work out. But Reece "needed a liberator / and liberators can come in some unexpected guises"--just as, he goes on to mention, Jesus after his death appeared in an unexpected guise to some of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, so far indeed from his usual appearance that only after the stranger had disappeared did they realize to whom they had been talking. Similarly, Reece is, many years on, still unpacking what Durell meant to him. Durell had been long estranged from his family, but after his death, Reece tracks down Durell's sister, trying to get at who the man was. He is not quite able to say, but does come up these extraordinary lines, quoted by Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss: "All I know now / is the more he loved me, the more I loved the world."

"The Road to Emmaus" is a highlight, but there are other extraordinary long poems here: "Gilgamesh," where Reece's relationship with another man is convincingly braided with a queer reading of the Babylonian epic; "Hartford," a prose-poem or perhaps a D'Agatian "next American essay" about the city where Reece was born, which with subtle sleight of hand blends Bob Marley, Wallace Stevens, and Mary Macleod Bethune; "The Upper Room," another poem that convincingly binds a New Testament story to the poet's memory of a particular time in his life.

Reece is a priest in the Reformed Episcopal Church, and much of the book is about spiritual concerns, but you will have to go elsewhere if you are looking for uplift and consolation; we're just barely out of the Slough of Despond most of the time here, and staying out is a fairly arduous business. There is lots of elegant dry wit to get by on, though, as when Reece describes the figure on the silver crucifix he wears, "a man I now relied on," as "a childless, bachelor Jew, slightly feminine," or as when a slightly acid-flavored portrait of an elderly couple ("she is reading Vita Sackville-West, / he has food on his moth-eaten sweater vest") is titled "The Fifth Commandment"--that is, "Honor thy father and thy mother."