BY PAUL-NEWELL REAVES
2004, Houghton Mifflin
Filed Under: Poetry
The allure of the lengthy title poem of Spencer Reece’s The Clerk’s Tale is difficult to describe, but I would vote it the finest poem of the 21st century. Nothing interesting happens, and no one changes much. It makes no statements and harbors few ideas; it mildly endorses elitist capitalism, without confronting it, while alluding to Christianity without any confirming or questioning of belief in it. And, of course, the title references the Chaucer tale―which Reece’s poem does not remotely reference, refer to, or rewrite. But drat, it is beautiful. And I don’t know why.
I have been reading this book for two years, because each long poem can be savored for the first time for a full week, and endlessly re-read. I have no desire to run out of new ones. I can say this: there is immense softness to his language, comforting feyness, yet confident, if understated, masculinity, and an all-pervasive enduring of weariness.
The scene is a Brooks Brothers high-end retail shop in the Mall of America, Minneapolis. The marriage of Chaucer’s tale manifests between the platonic co-workers―one specifically queer, the other simply an I, an impassive narrator, of whom we know only the quiet tone of his voice. There the allusion ends. There is no moralizing, and no goodness, but no judgements, either; neither is there victory, or even defeat. The store closes. The two say goodnight, and go home.
Theoretically, this is a poem about acceptance―but if acceptance of queerness, that interpretation must be laid on top, cannot be read between the lines. Of “the old homosexual,” the most that Reece says is that “no one can rival his commission checks.” The closest the poem comes to a statement is this,: “his acceptance is finally complete―/ and complete acceptance is always/ bittersweet.”
And yet there are gems, unexpected and few between; while considering an undressed mannequin, Reece’s single line whists, “the naked body, without pretense, is of no use.”
Similar Reads: Marcel Proust, Poems; Rainier Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus