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The electrifying self-reveal has long been a favorite trick of the gods. An amiable companion on horseback uncloaks himself as Odin, deity of wisdom, poetry, and victory in battle; in Genesis, Jacob rises from a wrestling match to find the challenger was Yahweh in human form. And on The Road to Emmaus, as depicted in a garish postcard in Sister Ann’s office, where Spencer Reece’s speaker remembers his older mentor and would-be lover in the title poem of his latest collection, two travelers from Jerusalem are joined by a third, who listens intently to a description of their savior before revealing himself as Christ.
Reece’s readers also listen intently, along with Sister Ann, to these exquisitely anatomized recollections, but the joke is on us: the men, women, and past selves Reece’s speakers recall are veiled rather than revealed, their visibility teasingly restricted by their own insecurities, confined in the lacunae of the selves on display. In this way they too partake of the nature of deities, becoming kin to the imprisoned seductress of Sylvia Plath’s “Purdah,” who murmurs, “I/ Smile, cross-legged,/ Enigmatical, Shifting my clarities.”
In “Gilgamesh,” the infamous 2009 incident of the pet chimpanzee who mauled a woman’s face is subsumed into the speaker’s obsession with facelessness: “In the hospital … a veil was placed over the head/ of the woman without a face,/ as Zeus had done to Hera before their marriage vow … she spoke to the reporters/ through a spokesperson and said:/ A little while and you will see me.”
In parsing this motif, Reece’s highly visible breadth of Western cultural literacy is saved from effeteness by his dedication to rendering our divine comedy not only in its glory, but with accurate grunge: “Darkened figures in the poor light, we looked like the Burghers of Calais, and smelled of brewed coffee, smoke, perfume, urine, human brine.”
Didn’t acne-pocked Kate want to be a model?
Didn’t Electroshock Mike read paperbacks?
and didn’t an Irish professor named Tom
welcome Tellus, who could not get over Nam?
(“The Road to Emmaus”)
Our ultimate anonymity via erasure is the underlying subject, as time sweeps fragments of life downriver; everywhere in The Road to Emmaus, Reece’s speakers find identity dimmed, smoked, erased:
I do not like it,
the way young black men die in the ER,
shot, unrecognized, their gurneys stripped,
their belongings catalogued and unclaimed.
My grandmother chain-smoked, a factory of herself, until the smoke obscured her. When I could see her, her cloud of white/hair receding, my grandmother resembled George Washington with lipstick. (“Hartford”)
“Catalogued and unclaimed” aptly describes Reece’s methodology for construing the detritus of life, shored against time’s ruins. The poet’s suave precision, famous from The Clerk’s Tale, with the lexicon of fabric and metal, and a general Ashberian dexterity with paraphernalia, even marginalia, is matched by witty conversational felicity:
From the baroness’s earlobes, hanging low,
her Verdura eardrops made of peridot,
so that when she laughed her deep upper-class laugh—
Hardee-har-har! and tee-hee-hee!—
her head tinkled like a chandelier in an earthquake.
Those lines from “Monaco,” a frothy confection of holiday tourism arcing into a meditation on loneliness, find a poignant resonance in “the dollhouses that make up Monaco,/ lighting up each rich subject,”/ feeling into the rooms,/ fingering the miniatures.” In Emmaus’ obsessively catalogued auction house, human figures are dwarfed by time and failure, and yet rendered oddly, touchingly precious—holding a sentimental value above the fluctuations of the world’s marketplace.
Reece’s concentrated beam of attention ricochets through the dim atmosphere waiting to obscure us: the poet’s day job, as an Episcopalian priest, is to listen. “Was it true, what they said, that a priest is a house lit up?” (“Among Schoolchildren”). In the title poem, the nun hears the speaker’s confession that “I missed his listening./ Listening, Sister Anne said, is a memorable form of love.” Elsewhere in “The Prodigal Son,” Reece interrogates the reader: “Are you listening to me?” A consummate cataloguer of formative experience, being listened to is the way Reece wants, in turn, to be loved.
It’s such attention, Reece suggests, that un-tarnishes the silver or lifts the grime of decades from the oil on canvas in our private psychological storehouses; with its subtle musicality, The Road to Emmaus is a dark road of tragedies from personal heartbreak to the Holocaust, to be illuminated by this ray not of light, but of listening.
How does Reece self-disclose in these pages? With the same rewarding indirectness as his subjects. Authorial, familial, or celestial, our deities reveal themselves to what Dickinson called “the rare ear/ not too dull.” In “The Manhattan Project,” the poet offers an apt meditation on developing our acuity:
The quietness inside my father was building and would come to define him. I was wrong to judge it. Speaker, Father, and I will listen. And if you do not wish to speak, then I will listen to that.
The Road to Emmaus
By Spencer Reece
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Hardcover, 9780374280857, 144 pp.