Emerging Poet: On Spencer Reece
"Burnish the Interiors"
Spencer Reece was born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1963. His father was a pathologist, his mother a nurse. He grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and graduated from Wesleyan University. He continued his studies at the University of York, England, writing his thesis on the expression of humility in the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne, and making a pilgrimage to the little chapel in Bemerton where Herbert—a country parson—preached and is buried. When Reece returned to the States, he enrolled at the Harvard Divinity School, receiving—at age twenty-seven—a master’s in theological studies. He envisioned becoming a hospital chaplain, like Herbert. But that didn’t happen.
At Wesleyan, Reece took a class in "verse writing" with Annie Dillard, who recommended the study of other disciplines. He also had a long distance correspondence with James Merrill, who was complimentary and kind, but encouraged him to wait to publish. Otherwise, for two decades, he wrote without affiliation or support. For three years, he lived alone on a farm in Minnesota. While in Minnesota, he took a class at the Loft with Deborah Keenan, who was a lifesaver. Reece, whom I have never met, has published only a handful of poems in the United States. He now works for Brooks Brothers, where he began in sales at the Mall of America, in Minneapolis. "I once sold Donald Hall a sport coat and fitted it for him," he told me proudly during a recent phone conversation. At present, he is assistant manager of the Palm Beach Gardens store.
Reece went into retail because he believed his education had no practical application, though it was a great education for a poet and for his heart. Until recently, when Louise Glück chose his manuscript for the Bakeless Poetry Prize, he’d come to believe he’d made a mistake. His manuscript, The Clerk’s Tale, which he began at divinity school, will be published next year by Houghton Mifflin. Reading Reece’s poems, I am reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnets, not because of any similarity in style, but because of the unspoken sorrow lingering behind his descriptions of landscape and life.
In Reece’s case, it’s the sorrow born of a family’s dissolution and the aftereffects. When he says, "As we left, I could still see the ponies, / crowding one another, free and unbroken," the reader ponders what it is to be unfree and broken. Are these the effects of family? And I hear Elizabeth Bishop in his longer narrative poems (as I do in Merrill’s), where autobiography mixes with lyric introspection. I’m reminded of Bishop’s "Crusoe in England," where there is acceptance more than fear as the solitary Crusoe remembers his life with Friday stranded on an island. And Reece’s lines (occasionally rhyming) also feel a little "homemade," like Bishop’s. He is a formal poet, but his form is not bloodlessly perfect. He is unafraid of smudging things to get us closer to the truth.
Though the thought of Spencer Reece working unratified in isolation for twenty years is troubling to me, in an increasingly homogeneous and academic poetry community, it seems a triumphant destiny for this poet. I praise him.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2003 (No. 25) issue of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2003 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved.