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.


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