The Road to Emmaus: Poems
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
144 pp., $24.00
Poet & Priest
Spencer Reece's second collection of poems, The Road to Emmaus, opens with a stunning poem describing his experience as a priest in a neonatal ICU, which ends:
It is correct to love even at the wrong time.
On rounds, the newborns eyed me, each one
like Orpheus in his dark hallway, saying:
I knew I would find you, I knew I would lose you.
Here, Reece articulates a transcendent and devastating encounter with mortality that strikes the reader with both the perennial familiarity of myth and an arresting contemporary specificity. In the first line quoted above, Reece makes a rather grand philosophical statement, reminiscent of those found in the work of the late Jack Gilbert. Reece wisely uses this type of statement sparingly, as philosophical generalizations are so often problematic. (E.g., What does "correct" mean? What would it mean for a time to be "wrong" for love?) But by moving swiftly past this grandiloquent utterance into his visceral experience in the neonatal ICU, Reece implicitly asks the reader not to dwell on the semantics and technicalities of the statement, but to simply feel its resonance with the experience being described. And, as in the best of Jack Gilbert's work, that resonance is profound. The reader feels the wrongness in the fragility of life and unearned suffering of the newborns, and the correctness in the human attachment between the newborns and Reece.
Unfortunately, this poem remains unequalled until late in the collection (with the prose poem "Hartford: Visions"). That's not to say there isn't much to admire in the intervening poems, but the lyric intensity of the opening poem falls away for a meandering voice that sifts through the details of life, looking for those that are most significant. But the speaker can't seem to decide which are significant—or, when he does decide, why those should be the significant ones.
Reece is a gay Episcopalian priest, and in The Road to Emmaus he primarily explores what at least appears to be the poet's own past, including family history, friendships, romantic relationships, seminary, and priestly duties in such places as prisons and hospitals. The poems vary greatly in length and form: Shorter poems are interspersed with long poems—some well over 20 pages—and the forms he employs include free verse, rhymed couplets (in one poem), prose poems, and a sonnet. The strangest formal element in this collection is unpredictable, sporadic rhyme in some of the long free-verse poems. At times, these random rhymes make it seem as if Reece were poking fun at himself for writing poetry. Most of these rhymes feel overly obvious (beach/each, right/light, phone/alone), calling attention to the artifice of telling a story in poetry. These rhymes, when they appear, often ring with a faux childish note, like T. S. Eliot's in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and indeed, Reece's voice is often full of uncertainty and dismayed confusion, like Prufrock's.
In the title poem, one of the long free-verse poems, the speaker recounts what seems a quasi-romantic, though non-physical, relationship with a man he calls Durrell, whom he met at an AA group and who has died. "[W]herever I moved," the speaker says,
daily, over the phone, on landlines—
talking and listening, listening and talking, for fifteen years:
In all that time, I only saw him once more,
and by then he was nearly blind.
In all that time, we barely touched one another.
The setting for the retelling of this relationship is a series of counseling sessions with a nun, who has a postcard on her wall depicting Christ's post-resurrection appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who fail to recognize him as the Christ until that evening as they eat together. In Reece's title poem, as throughout the collection, the speaker searches for God's presence in the daily, concrete reality of his life and relationships. The title of the book and the biblical story it references imply that the sacred is here with us, now, in each particular of our lives—and for the most part we fail to recognize that fact. Reece seems convinced that he has failed to comprehend the sacred significance of his life, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and so pores over the details of his past.
At times he seeks God outside everyday life, as in his two periods of seminary study:
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.
It was my second attempt.