Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Spencer Reece, _The Clerk's Tale_

I LIKED REECE'S Road to Emmaus so much that I figured this, his previous (and first) collection, was worth a try, and it's just as good--while I did not come across an individual poem that affected me quite as much as "The Road to Emmaus" did, this collection may actually be consistently stronger, in a poem-by-poem, page-by-page way.

(The auto-correct on my computer keeps assuming that by "Emmaus" I must mean "Emma's.")

As in many first collections, influences are sometimes easy to spot.  The use of anaphora in "Chiaroscuro" and "To You" recalls Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," as does the atmosphere of via negativa spirituality (also a part of The Road to Emmaus.) "Cape Cod" sounds a bit like middle period James Merrill. "Ponies" seems inspired by the very same occasion that led to James Wright's "A Blessing." (And Wright was Minnesotan, too, I think--I wonder whether Reece met him.)

The abiding presence seems to be Elizabeth Bishop, though, not just because she is mentioned by name in "Florida Ghazals" and because quite a few of the poems are set in the Keys, but also because the poems seem...whatever adjective can be formed on "Bishop." "Bishovian"? "Bishop-like"? Whatever we want to call the quality, it was wonderful to see a contemporary poet display it.

For example, Reece seems able to manage the Bishop trick of dissolving narrative into description, as in "At the Fishhouses" or "Cape Breton," where the event that occurred disappears wholly into details of the place where it occurred yet is felt in every line (see Reece's "Midnight" and "Diminuendo.") Or the Bishop of "One Art," the confessional impulse that is almost but not quite completely suppressed (see most of the poems Reece has gathered as "Addresses").

Bishop never wrote ghazals, so far as I know, but had she done so, they might have been as surprising, as nimble in switching registers, and as deft in their blending of innovation with fidelity to the tradition as Reece's are. The "Ghazals for Spring"were probably my favorite piece in the book.

Speaking of fidelity...why name the book after The Clerk's Tale? The poem of that title in Reece's volume turns out to be an account of a well-into-middle-age gay male clerk in an upscale men's clothing store, from the point of view a similarly circumstanced but somewhat younger man. So who is the Griselda here? Are we supposed to notice the patience and fidelity of the older man? Are they married, in a way? When they leave work, "Sometimes snow falls like rice." But they go in different directions, one to Minneapolis and one to St. Paul, "loosening our ties"--nice pun, by the way. Is the reference to the city of St. Paul's being "named after the man who had to be shown," an allusion to Chaucer's possible allegory about faith in the tale? I obviously have more questions than answers here.  Time for lunch.

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