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There’s not a lot out there on Spencer Reece aside from an article by Henri Cole on the Academy of American Poets site.
To summarize that short article: Reece grew up in Minneapolis, went to divinity school, and worked for Brooks Brothers in the Mall of America. His book, The Clerk’s Tale, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2004 and the title poem is largely about the backroom lives of clerks working in an upscale retail store in the Mall of America. He spent nearly 20 years working in isolation on the book though, at one point, he did have some kind of correspondence with James Merrill.
“In isolation,” here, means removed from a ready community of poets, or at least away from the poets in academia and those who work the small presses and journal editors and conferences and colonies.
I first heard the term “professional poet” in graduate school and was surprised by it; especially since only a handful of late-career poets can actually pay their mortgages by writing poetry. But being a professional poet has nothing to do with money earned but more with good, old-fashioned networking. And the result is generally the same for poets as it is in the business world: the glad-handing, happy-hour-organizing go-getter who started on the same day as you in the same position as you is now in the corner office while you remain in the cube farm. And you’re so much smarter, damn it! I was always annoyed that the uber-networking types found success when more talented poets who concerned themselves more with the making than the networking, struggled mightily finding an audience. But poetry is a business too (albeit a poor one) so I’ve resigned to all its trappings.
But it’s always nice to see someone who appears to be “an outsider” break through and find an audience. Cole’s article makes it sound like the closest Reece came to another poet was in the fitting of a jacket for Donald Hall. Cole also states that Reece is a formal poet, but the selections I’ve read don’t warrant that distinction; they’re all free verse.
But Cole is on the mark, at least with the selections I’ve read, that Reece’s poems have ” the unspoken sorrow lingering behind his descriptions of landscape and life.” Reece’s poem from the October 13, 2008, issue of the New Yorker certainly fits that description.
In this poem, we find a man with Alzheimer’s Disease and a female caregiver sitting on bench beside a small lake in South Florida. They eat potato chips, talk about naps and feed ducks. That’s it; that’s the action. But we learn a lot about these characters, particularly Laurie: she has two failed marriages, a cloying handwriting habit, a blind dog she bathes with some frequency, and is the type of Christian who has an active interest in the saving of other’s souls. Joseph seems to be all about the ducks.
They’re a pathetic tandem and through them Reece creates poem that leaks with loneliness. It’s sad. The language is manicured and pretty straightforward and there’s really no obfuscation or a whole lot going on behind the scenes. I’m not sure, though, what “the duck was flush with floor maps” might mean. Maybe littered floor maps from a nearby mall?
The title is interesting, though. Eclogues are poems in pastoral settings and usually involve shepherds chatting in vine-shaded glades while their sheep and goats and what not mill about. Virgil’s “Eclogues” are probably the most notable example. Spenser also wrote some pretty dazzling eclogues in the form of “The Shepheardes Calendar.”
I guess in Reece’s eclogue, the Joseph and Laurie tandem are tending to the duck but the conversation is notably absent. Instead, the last third of the poem describes the duck in great detail as if neither one of them has anything to say after the topic of naps was exhausted and all one can do is really look at a duck.