Reviewed by David Seter
In a world where social media posts and tweets come fast and furious, a span of ten years between conversations seems almost incomprehensible. That’s how long readers have waited for Spencer Reece’s new collection of poems The Road to Emmaus. The text arrives almost unexpectedly, like a message in a bottle, or perhaps an ancient amphora that’s traveled by caravan, pages stuffed inside at each stop.
If Reece’s first collection The Clerk’s Tale reads like a carnival (those poems seem to perform for the reader) then this latest collection welcomes the reader into the caravan. Longer narrative poems unroll their lines at a walking pace. In this sense the book’s title is well chosen. The Road to Emmaus refers to a Biblical journey in which, following his death and resurrection, Christ appears in the guise of a stranger to comfort two grieving apostles as they walk together.
Although there are Biblical references in the text, the poems are rooted in everyday experience. The focus on the spiritual is driven by life experience: in the intervening years following publication of The Clerk’s Tale Reece became ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. The journey Reece takes us on is deeply reflective, from his childhood in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in which the poet comes to grips with his father’s silence in the context of the development of the atomic bomb, to a girl’s orphanage in Honduras where Reece serves as spiritual and creative mentor.
Reece depicts people in a way best described as devotion, a word he uses in the poem “12:20 in New York.” The poet visits a brother adopted into the family as a child, who has in turn adopted a stray cat who visits the fire escape outside his apartment window. He’s named the stray WAYD, which, appropriate to our age, is text messaging/shorthand for “what are you doing?” The poet observes: “devotion becomes the most reasonable emotion as we age.”
An act of devotion is also central to the poem “The Fifth Commandment,” in which an old couple is observed in their nightly routine:
Tonight they talk of their last vegetable garden,
count out their pills in chipped cereal bowls
(you know the ones), check their sugar levels,
bicker over books misplaced, tchotchkes
lost, their tongues like well-used church keys.
In the Protestant faith the Fifth Commandment reads: honor thy father and thy mother.
“Among Schoolchildren” is about the author’s time spent serving at the Honduran orphanage Our Little Roses:
A world widened in me. But what of my Protestant professors
rearranging furniture in their well-appointed heads…
The poet’s preference for people over dogma explains the aura of kindness that permeates the poems in The Road to Emmaus. The January 2015 issue of Poetry describes Reece’s experience at the orphanage and includes translations of his students’ poems. Reece seems to be making a difference in the slow world of poetry. Alongside the tweets of social justice skittering on the surface his poems explore what’s underneath.
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