When “The Clerk’s Tale” by Spencer Reece appeared in The New Yorker nine years ago, his first publication in the magazine, it caused a small stir in the poetry world. It became the title poem in Reece’s first collection, which Louise Glück chose for the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Bakeless Literary Prize in 2004. James Franco made the poem the basis of a short film he directed. The poem’s subject is part of what makes it interesting: Reece puckishly reused Chaucer’s title to tell the story not of suffering Patient Griselda but of his own life as a clerk at a Brooks Brothers store in Minnesota. High-end mall retail is not a cliché subject for poetry. But “The Clerk’s Tale” was not merely a topical curiosity. Reece’s autobiographical voice—sad, witty, and (yes!) patient—was wholly individual and arresting. Take the poem’s dry, sublimely simple first sentence: “I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier, / selling suits to men I call ‘Sir.’ ”
Fast-forward to the recent past. Reece, as a student at Yale Divinity School, is in the process of trading his Brooks Brothers threads for the vestments of the Episcopal Church. This transition “from the profane to the sacred” is the subject of “The Upper Room,” which follows. The pace is, once again, measured, meant to capture the gradual nature of passing time and personal transformation. Reece takes us into his high dorm room, “a hiding place” where, as in a cocoon, another life takes shape. It is a forgettable space “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.” Yet Reece fixes the room’s homely details in his—and the reader’s—memory: that chest of drawers missing a knob, or a “kitschy” Byzantine icon with “eyes staring in two directions, / as if Christ had managed his ministry with his eyes crossed.”
Reece is exceptionally clear-seeing, although—or precisely because—he keeps his own eyes crossed, equally focused on the profane and the sacred. The tone he takes is neither pious nor the contrary. He sees himself and his fellow seminarians, dedicated and devout as they are, as others might see them: “We were made for any novel by Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym.” In this company, Reece is giving up attachments. As the months pass, his family is “disappearing.” Everything, he recognizes, is temporary. The white plastic seats rented for graduation look “exactly like Arlington National Cemetery.” After all, a sort of death is taking place. “To whom I belonged was about to change,” Reece declares. And to whom he will belong when he moves on—for this is a Christian devotional poem—is Jesus. But look at how the Lord appears in the final line: “a childless, bachelor Jew, slightly feminine.” That savior is so real, so actual and particular, that even the unbelievers among Reece’s readers can believe in him too.
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