Thursday, August 22, 2013

Spencer Reece's Journey

My Great Grandmother’s Bible

     by Spencer Reece

In memoriam: Nicholas Sturgis Thorndike, III

Faux-leather bound and thick as an onion, it flakes –
an heirloom from Iowa my dead often read.
I open the black flap to speak the spakes
and quickly lose track of who wed, who bred.
She taped our family register as it tore,

her hand stuttering like a sewing machine,
darning the blanks with farmers gone before –
Inez, Alvah, Delbert, Ermadean.
Our undistinguished line she pressed in the heft
between the Testaments, with spaces to spare,
and one stillborn’s name, smudged; her fingers left
a mounting watchfulness, a quiet repair –
when I saw the AIDS quilt, spread out in acres,
it was stitched with similar scripts by similar makers.

There is such a beauty and honesty in Spencer Reece’s poetry.  It is as lush as a forest and it’s worth following the path he blazes through it.  What calls me particularly is his willingness to work beyond the easy arc of what the ego calls and needs and to journey into the deeper and more mysterious place both in poetry and in his life’s ministry.  He explores it honestly in his poetry, opens a door for us in The Upper Room (below), which appeared in the summer of 2012 in the American Scholar, and in an essay he wrote for the Bloom site called My Dream: Spencer Reece, Giving Voice to the Silent. 

Reece is an Episcopalian priest who is currently serving as a chaplain in Honduras and is affiliated with Our Little Roses, a sanctuary and school for orphaned girls; he is the author of The Clerk's Tale and the forthcoming The Road to Emmaus, both collections of his poetry. Read more of his poetry on line at Poets.Org (the Academy of American Poets) and the Poetry Foundation.

My Great Grandmother's Bible and The Upper Room are published with permission of the author.


The Upper Room

                      by Spencer Reece, for Mary Jane Zapp

If you looked up, you might have seen me,
although, truth be told, few saw me in that room:
it required crossing the threshold from the profane to the sacred,
a paradoxical proposition for most, including myself.
But I went in search of the transcendent in those days,
which required leaving a particular world for another.
It is never easy to abandon a world.
I lived on the third floor on 363 Saint Ronan Street.
By that time in my life, I recognized the room was temporary –
from the start, I accepted the dwelling's transitory nature.

Each November, between shut gray New England spaces,
I saw nervous birds, those itinerant immigrants, abandon the trees;
addicts of seeing, they charged the horizon when color was removed.
I pressed against the window as if it were a museum case,
just as the world pressed against the windows of New Haven,
examining each one of us like a relic with a label,
in the same inquisitive, cursory manner.
The skyline was muted, ill-defined:
New Haven sprawled from Gothic elegance to poverty without drama.
The landscape was obstructed:
we were deaf to the sea's plain chant, could not smell its stink,
taste its salt, the harbor blocked by a highway and warehouses.
The city favored neither misery nor ecstasy.
Whether our sanctuary could purify the world was debatable.

In my attic room, angled by dormers,
the gloaming laid down golden beams that lit up the room like a classroom.
At night the room nourished the moon and made it bloom.
I felt tended by the light.
It must have been the maid's room once;
when I heard the floorboards creak
I imagined them accompanied by her singular sighs.
Long ago painters painted over the servant bells and buzzers.
My desk chair, left over from a dining room set,
lurched and had been repeatedly glued, then finally taped –
promising artifact for a future archeological dig.
The room was like many rooms I had known:
furnished, rented, up flights of stairs,
a chest of drawers with a knob missing, a bed slept in by many –
all indications that things last longer than people.
A lamp, half-broken, with an ostrich statue for a stand,
had one red eye, the other eye was missing –
it had the vantage point of half the world.

On my desk The Book of Common Prayer lay,
mine since my confirmation with notes and Post-It stickers,
coffee stains and pencil marks covered the pages,
and from the spine,
red, green, and gold streamers like the tails of kites –
that book, structured and defined by time,
from birth to marriage to death– "O God,
whose days are without end, and whose mercies
cannot be numbered: make us, we beseech thee, deeply sensible

of the shortness and uncertainty of life ..." Sensible?
How to be sensible about uncertainty?

Above my bed, I hung a Byzantine icon of Christ,
a kitschy trinket copied and laminated countless times,
sold in religious gift shops the world over,
originally from Saint Catherine's Monastery in Mount Sinai,
the longest running monastery, functioning since the sixth century;
the bluish Christ depicted had eyes staring in two directions,
as if Christ had managed his ministry with his eyes crossed.
I had books: C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, Gregory of Nanzianzus's Orations.
After I was ordained a deacon,
my red stole hung over my closet door signaling an exit.

My life had depended on not being seen.
I needed a hiding place,
and that room compensated for such an enterprise.
To the east, two mullioned windows opened on New Haven –
oak, spruce, holly, yew filled in the foreground,
and there, beneath, to the right, a bed of purpled cornflowers bloomed,
their petals colored like communion wine,
always ruined before we could cut them for the dinner parties.
Beneath me I could hear a bejeweled hubbub,
the rub and thrum of purple churchy murmurs:
deans, archdeacons, bishops, canons, postulants, candidates, monks, nuns,
even presiding bishops and past-presiding bishops.
Divinity School

A neo-Colonial red brick house with  Italianate flourishes;
on the second floor Palladian windows sparkled like bifocals.
We heard mice and bats in the walls gently tunneling;
they sounded like a hand holding a pen and writing in a diary,
moving forward with blind discovery.
Once grand and private, but now communal,
the house passed from a wealthy family to the Episcopal Church,
like the first house church in Dura-Europas,
and we, the seminarians, occupied several rooms,
perpetuating innocence and displaying a command of the obvious:
one said, "We are infiltrating the world we call God's";
another moved with the instinct to help that was misplaced;

another believed the world corrected what was not genuine.
We made meals for one hundred every week,
cleaned toilets, shut doors, did laundry, made beds,
our fingers cut from chopping, stinging with chemicals, tender from scalding.
Perfunctory, undressing, each of us quiet, cold,
grimly chewing our meals in the twilight,
we did not wish to disturb the Dean's family on the second floor.
We were made for any novel by Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym.

At 7:30 AM., in Saint Luke's Chapel,
behind the double doors with frosted glass,
we looked up at the ornate coffered ceiling, white with delft blues,
its cornices and moldings with curlicues like the inside of a coffin lid.
Often, we sang the Blake hymn about countenance and Jerusalem.
Our fussy rustle of copes, chasubles, surplices, stoles
sounded like birds picking at newspapers.
Inside everyone sat, knelt, stood, and genuflected
with the informed hush of a troupe of mime artists.
The liturgy followed Rite I,
beginning with the Prayer for the Penitent:

Almighty and most merciful Father;
We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts,
We have offended against thy holy laws,
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done,

And we have done those things which we ought not to have done.

At that moment in time,
much of my family had gone,
rapidly, all at once –
grands, uncles, aunts, even three cousins.
The first spring my father had a heart attack, nearly died.
Another cousin's cancerous esophagus was removed.
The deaths and near-deaths were earthquakes;
even though New England knows few earthquakes,
after each one I was never able to put everything back,
before the next, the next, and the next.
The room's makeshift state reflected my mental disarray:
shoes cast off, a bureau top covered with misplaced numbers,
and separate currencies–
dollars, Euros, pounds, limpiras, sheqalim –
with portraits of well-fingered human beings.
I had acquired the habits of departure.
Watching the clock's hands scissor through the day's indigo shadows,
I practiced homilies.
I strove for brevity.
"Five minutes," the priests instructed me.
To whom I belonged was about to change.

My family had lived and suffered, suffered
in ways not imagined. Of my generation nearly all
had married poorly, and few stayed married long enough
to have children. We were disappearing.
But we who remained, kept on, over the phone, mainly:
"John Alexander is marrying at nineteen."
"Aunt Dorothy is ninety-three."
When the dead outnumber the living,
you remember the living, gently, gently –
using the tone one associates with church pews.
How this one went broke
or that one resented something, I stopped recalling.

Three years finished like that.
One last uncle, in a nursing home, in Avon,
senile, in a diaper, a policeman, fed with a spoon by his wife,
a week before he died, held me, would not let go.
At school, we prepared our last meal,
served the dishes, alert to portions, wiped the tables down.
The way forward was the way out.
The world was adjusting to the quick –
colors, temperatures, people coming, going,
staring at each other, each with a story.
It had been a long winter.
I'd been ordained in a blizzard, and now the frost's zodiacs
had all disappeared. This was the world,
and I was still in it. My suitcases packed,
my clerical collars placed in my trunk, like bandages.

In the British Art Museum,
visitors observed Whistler's oils,
where British bluish light overtook one wall,
and there the world often lingered, searching for solace in a scene.
Privately, and secretly,
in the basements of the Beinecke,
librarians in gloves opened the Medieval books of hours,
resting them upon foam cradles for the curious and the concerned.
On the velum pages, the unicorns nosed the bright blue virgins.
In a classroom, Harold Bloom closed his eyes;
looking like a traveler on board a ship,
he recited D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot.
He was old now, walked with a cane,
had fallen down a flight of stairs.
Should he stop teaching, he wondered aloud, to his students.
But what else would he do?
He preferred Lawrence to Eliot,
could not abide Eliot's anti-Semitism.
Undergraduates took notes in their last classes.

All at once, spring stampeded.
Crocuses shot up.
Birds re-assumed the air.
Then, graduation.
The rivers of youth reversed.
Maintenance crews lined up the white folding chairs,
and if you squinted, before the ceremony,
the empty chairs looked exactly like Arlington National Cemetery.

As fate would have it,
I was moving far away, to another country.
I awaited what I could not see,
an activity that preoccupies many religious lives.
I crossed the threshold.
The Dean's door locked behind me one last time.
Had I chosen it?
Had I chosen it all?
The Benedictine cross around my neck,
given by a friend, was light,
a silver, tarnished chipped Christ, on shiny onyx,
a man I now relied on –
paradoxically bound and free –
childless, bachelor Jew, slightly feminine.

AIDS Quilt panel at Emory University
Among the photos I used in the quilt image above were from the ~ woman sewing panel, boy sewing panel in a Call My Name workshop in Houston, Texas, ( Photo © Jena P. Jones/   Smithsonian Quilting Bee – Smithsonian folk festival, an Aids panel from a Washington Post article, photos of Spencer from Blackbird, The Poetry Foundation, and the Bloom.


Thursday, November 22, 2012


           for Rick

Think of my gratitude the granite
In the rock - the sparkle, the streak
Made visible by the clear cut
We speed past. For most, missed,
But you notice not only the bright
Patterns it makes but also guess
The deeper dimensions, how it bends
And curves among the layers beneath
The surface, evidence of long past
Pressures that civilizing force
Brings to light. Most or much
Is still invisibly beneath the paths we walk,
The fields and forests we speed past,
Incorporated into the geology
And the ecology of our every day

by Jaye Freyer

Many thanks this Thanksgiving for the warm and loving support of so many friends through the difficult loss and challenges of my recent months.  Though I wrote this for Rick, it reflects how deeply I have appreciated the many kinds of help, support and good wishes from you.  Thanks ~  Jaye

Friday, June 22, 2012

Ironic Points of Light ~ Individual poetic lines take on a life of their own

Poems over time become beveled by a person's inner need and nature, much as the mountains and hills are worn down by wind and sand - leaving behind the hardest most durable parts on the landscape.  My memory of W. H. Auden's poem, September 1, 1939, has been carved down over time to a firm few lines that stand up my thoughts during troubled times ~ so often recently (see both my memory's version and the original below).

 One of the unique wonders of good poems is the way they find places in our metaphysical landscapes and are available - sometimes literally leaping out to offer assistance - when we need just the right words to convey an impression.  There is something of the sacred in it - anchoring our insights to the bedrock of human nature.

Taube or Dove, WWI war plane
Throughout the recent financial crisis, I've noticed both this poem by Auden and Yeats' The Second Coming, being frequently remembered, mentioned, blogged.  Many folks I notice in conversation can't recall more than the first few lines of The Second Coming - but these few lines capture something critical in our comprehension of the individual's relationship with the leader - be that government, God or nature - and the fear when things spin out of control.  

Edvard Munch's The Scream

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

This in response to the economy, to global warming, to a distance grown too big for even the most cleaver falcons among us to hear the falconer.  Both poems were written on the thresholds of war - Auden opens on the moment WWII becomes a reality, emerging from a decade that strained people and environments to a breaking point by dwindling resources, and Yeats stands at the backdoor of WWI, surveying the damaged communities and societies left in the wake of the 'War to end all Wars'. 

When I first read them both in college, I was both closer in time and further away in ability to really 'hear' them.  I couldn't begin to imagine how the world had spun so completely out of control twice in one century.  It's a little easier to understand now, unfortunately.  

(My Memory of) September 1, 1939 by W.H.Auden

Norman Cornish Bar Scene
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright 

and darkened lands of the earth, 
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

I know what all schoolchildren learn, 
Those to whom evil is done
War Declared 1939
Do evil in return.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
Lest we should see where we are,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work...

Defenseless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Read the full, original poem below

September 1st, 1939  (Original) by W.H. Auden

New York Times September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offense
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim

The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
'I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,'
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Notes on the Images:  The beautiful Taube (or 'Dove'), designed by Igo Etrich, was Imperial Germany's first mass-produced aircraft and was used as a war plane in the beginning years of WWI.

Edvard Munch's The Scream (or Skrik in Norwegian) is one of the iconic paintings of the 20th Century.  Recently selling for $120 million, was stolen and recovered in 2004, and has been reproduced countless times.

The journal entry at the top is from a lovely blog by Rufina called 300DayJourney that includes images from her Grandmother's wartime diary (also the image at left).

The bar scene is a evocative charcoal and crayon art work by Norman Cornish, an English artist who was a coal miner for thirty years before beginning to sell his work. Visit his website here and learn more about his remarkable life and significant talent.   

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Adrienne Rich ~ Dream of a Common Language

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012
Diving Into the Wreck

                 by Adrienne Rich

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

The first book of poetry I bought was Adrienne Rich's Dream of a Common Language.  It was hard at the time to grasp how much of an impact she had, and was having, on the world I was coming of age in but looking back I am grateful for her strength of mind and character, as well as for her amazing poetry.  She had a beautiful courage.

The New York Times this morning opened her tribute, A Poet of Unswerving Vision at the Forefront of Feminism, wrote:
Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation and towering rage, whose work — distinguished by an unswerving progressive vision and a dazzling, empathic ferocity — brought the oppression of women and lesbians to the forefront of poetic discourse and kept it there for nearly a half-century. 
NPR's tribute, written by David Orr,  includes this recent poem entitled Turbulence

There'll be turbulence. You'll drop
your book to hold your
water bottle steady. Your
mind, mind has mountains, cliffs of fall
may who ne'er hung there let him
watch the movie. The plane's
supposed to shudder, shoulder on
like this. It's built to do that. You're
designed to tremble too. Else break
Higher you climb, trouble in mind
lungs labor, heights hurl vistas
Oxygen hangs ready
overhead. In the event put on
the child's mask first. Breathe normally

This wonderful quote, and the photograph above of Adrienne Rich with the trees, comes from the Wordveins blog.

“Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for our bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind.”
~Adrienne Rich

Read her biography at ~ Adrienne Rich Biography. 

The poem, Diving into the Wreck, is from Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 by Adrienne Rich. Copyright © 1973 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the author and W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Copyright 1973 by Adrienne Rich.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

In Memoriam ~ Wislawa Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska
One of my favorite poets passed away this week ~ Wislawa Szymborska. Read about her here in the New York Times by clicking this link ~ Wislawa Szymborska, a gentle and reclusive Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, died on Wednesday in Krakow, Poland. She was 88.

Lot's Wife

by Wislawa Szymborska

They say I looked back out of curiosity,

but I could have had other reasons.

I looked back mourning my silver bowl.

Carelessly, while tying my sandal strap.

So I wouldn’t have to keep staring at the righteous nape

Of my husband Lot’s neck.

From the sudden conviction that if I dropped dead

He wouldn’t so much as hesitate.

From the disobedience of the meek.

Checking for pursuers.

Struck by the silence, hoping God had changed his mind.

Read three other poems from last March on East West Poetry:  Lost and Found, Birthday, and, one of my favorites, Under A Certain Star.