Review of Spencer Reece’s The Clerk’s Tale by William Lobko
Poetry pundits, including this one, will be keen to align Spencer Reece’s Bakeless Prize-winning debut with Robert Lowell and his Life Studies. Reece doesn’t have exactly the same blue blood that ran in Lowell’s New English veins, but he’s close. Reece penned The Clerk’s Tale over fifteen years while working in a Brooks Brothers, which lends an air of taste and refinement to the themes at hand. The landscape is less strictly Northeastern than Lowell’s, but the tambour that undergirds his rich depictions of Florida shares with Lowell (and Stevens) the sentiment that death mothers beauty. Indeed, Reece’s exemplary “Cape Cod” could easily slip between “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereaux Wilson” and “Grandparents” and fool more than a few MFA students.
Reece, however, is not so easily defined. Though his work may have begun as a series of Lowellian variations (with Reece occasionally adding grace notes or shifting tempo and key), riffs on Lowell hardly constitute the full scope of his strangely quiet, oddly echoing music. The grace and confidence of Reece’s poems can’t be accounted for by merely reading him against his most obvious inspirations. Standard gray sensations of dying may run through Reece’s poems, but completely new are such assessments as this one from “Autumn Song”:
... and I breathe in the subtle
approbation of death coming as I recognize the Byzantine look
of the trees emptying themselves of themselves. The leaves fall
like leaflets in a relentless war and the architecture of skeletons
becomes more and more apparent…
Or this from “Tonight”:
I listen to the dust from the city
gather on the necks of the saints
at the hospital’s exits I exit.
Such repetitions—“emptying themselves of themselves”, “exits I exit”—complete the implications of mortality by invoking the speaker’s presence as witness and actor. So much of Lowell, to say nothing of the catalogue of lesser Confessional poets, contents itself with transcribing the entropy that warps the circles in which we travel. Reece’s location of himself within the natural process of decay redeems its potential for beauty and testifies to the fact that not all is lost.
Indeed, some of these poems aren’t even focused on assessing doom. Reece revels in le mot juste and freely spends his linguistic fortune: in “Diminuendo”, “two lovers liberate themselves in the grasses”; in “Midnight”, “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.” Especially agile with respect to the lyric and narrative impulses are Reece’s series of ghazals, “Spring Ghazals” and “Ghazals for Florida”, which survey people and topics including Anne Frank, Dostoyevsky, dead schoolchums, Cabaret rehearsals, arch adagia (“Everybody lies, I guess, and it usually happens in spring, / when the sky plumes to a deep Jesusy blue”), and ecstatic decrees (“Hey you! Come unto me! Let the meadow march into my mouth!”). Reece may as well be addressing language itself rather than spring when he writes “How you resex the swinging trees / and sing our trembling skins to sleep.”
By and large, however, these poems ache to declare the self within the natural, cultural, and personal worlds as they each smolder away. Reece’s pursuit of this project seduces even more than the giltwork of his most lyrical moments: poems like “The Clerk’s Tale”—to which The New Yorker dedicates an entire back page—exert a beguiling effect. By describing little more than the routines he and a fellow clerk follow while closing up at Brooks Brothers, Reece asserts himself with whispery insistence:
We are more gracious than English royalty.
We dart amongst the aisles tall as hedgerows.
Watch us face into the merchandise.
How we set up and take apart mannequins
as if we were performing autopsies.
As these lines entreat, they also dare—between the surfeit of material goods that surround us and the boundaries of our lives, there is a middleman. From there it is suddenly easy to see Reece’s interest in the line, the liminal, the means of transmission from outer to inner and thou to I: “We move to the gate. It goes up. / The gate’s grating checkers our cheeks. / This is the Mall of America.” Yes, and these are its occupants: unobserved but observant, injured but hoping to mend, alone, Reece says, but whose gestures are always fraternal.