The Road to Emmaus: Poems
by Spencer Reece
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
144 pages / $24.00 buy from Amazon
1. I have always had a thing for men of God.
2. Spencer Reece is an Episcopalian minister. Do not let this turn you off. If you do, you will be doing yourself a great disservice. You will be denying yourself something sight unseen.
3. The priest at my father’s funeral was a radical one. His name was Father Pat, and he was a notorious IRA sympathizer. At the service, Father Pat was treated like a rock star. At his own funeral, my father was upstaged.
4. Reece did not become a minister until he was 48 years old. It took him eleven years to write the poems in The Road to Emmaus. I find this to be strangely reassuring; I always feel like I am rushing, trying to make up for lost time.
5. In 2010, Reece served at the only all-girl orphanage in Honduras, Our Little Roses, in San Pedro Sula. San Pedro Sula is the murder capital of the world. At a reading from this book that I attended last week, Reece told a story of a friend’s attempt to raise money for the orphanage from a wealthy benefactress. The woman agreed to make the donation, saying, “How else will Honduras get its maids and prostitutes?”
6. A year after my father’s death, Father Pat was arrested for laundering money for weapons to the IRA.
7. The Road to Emmaus refers to a story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus makes an appearance to two of his disciples as they leave Jerusalem for the city of Emmaus, two days after Jesus’ crucifixion. The two disciples are leaving Jerusalem, perhaps for good, because of the events surrounding Jesus’ death. A man appears to the disciples on the road; he does not identify himself, and the disciples don’t recognize him. Instead, as he walks with them, the man corrects their misinterpretations about what has transpired; telling them it was all in line with God’s plan. Still not recognizing the man as Jesus, the disciples invite him to eat with them. Later, when they finally recognize him as Jesus, he disappears.
8. Reece describes himself as coming to religion “tentatively.” He told the Poetry Society of America that he feels a connection to T.S Eliot, who was also devout. Like Eliot, many of Reece’s poems mix verse with prose. “When I try to write, his example is never far from my mind. At times, I’d like to think I am in conversation with him,” Reece has said.
9. I have dreamed in lyrics from “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard.” And when the radical priest comes to get me released...I blame the Berrigan Brothers.
10. The story of Reece’s road to publication is oft-repeated. He wrote for over two decades, mostly alone, sometimes while living in farm house/ bird sanctuary in Minnesota, publishing only a handful of poems over that time. He sent out the manuscript for his first book of poetry, The Clerk’s Tale, to over 250 first- book contests without success. In 2003, he won the Bakeless Poetry Prize, judged that year by Poet Laureate Louise Glück. The title poem from The Clerk’s Tale was made into a short film by James Franco while Franco was a student at NYU. The poem is a story of the day in the life of Reece, and an older gay co-worker, as they go about their work day at a Brooks Brothers in the Mall of America.
11. The Fifth Commandment is my favorite poem in The Road to Emmaus. The poem is a lyrical diorama into the daily routine of Reece’s parents, both now in their dotage: “Here is the Oriental rug, still seeped in piss from their bulldog who barked like an activist.” As the poem progresses, it takes the shape of a letter to Reece’s brother. Of their mother, Reece writes, “She seems happy, reigning with creams you FedExed…” Their father is “rubbing his scalp, patched with scabby flecks (as his squamous-cell carcinomas sprout, the local dermatologist cuts them out or frosts the growths with liquid nitrogen).”
12. I would not describe Reece as a confessional poet, he reveals just enough in his writing where his past pains and struggles can be inferred. Locations are important. In the titular poem, Reece writes of his long- term AA sponsor, a lonely man with airs of superiority, “All I know now is the more he loved me, the more I loved the world.” Of himself, and the others attending the A.A meeting, Reece writes, “We were aristocrats of time: ‘I have twenty- one years,’ ‘I have one week,’ ‘I have one day.’” In the poem Gilgamesh, Reece contrasts scenes of a relationship with an older, long-term lover with the mating habits of ducks: “I saw them thrust with the thrust of youth… their lower extremities displayed private panic and that fear we recognized of being caught.” He meets the older man at a Coming- Out meeting where the group “took on new members. Tadpoles expressed their sexualities, opening their crotches like Bibles.”
13. Reece’s revelations are subtle illuminations. In the poem 12:20 in New York he offers what may be his reasoning: “Although I know the story well, I do not tell it now. There are stories that separate me from you; for that reason I do not tell them.”
14. Both Reece’s Road to Emmaus and the biblical story can be interpreted as metaphors for our relationship with our parents: if we are lucky, they have been beside us our whole lives, but often, by the time we come to understand what they are saying, they’ve disappeared.
15. Most of the men on my father’s side of the family have their IRA stories, and most follow the same arc. They involve either weapon’s running, or jail time. I don’t know which stories are true, and which aren’t, just as I never knew when my father was telling the truth, and when he wasn’t. I have learned that men lie differently than women. A line of dialogue from the movie Side Effects resonated with me so much, that I left the theater, to write it down: “Girls learn to fake things at a very early age…around the same time boys are learning to lie.”
16. At the reading, Reece spoke of an epiphany he had in the courtyard of the orphanage: I had parents, he said, I had parents.
17. In The Prodigal Son, Reece writes, “Mother and Father, forgive me my absence. I will always be moving quietly towards you.”
18. Every night, before I go to sleep, I pray. It’s a ritual, taught to me by mother, as soon as I could talk. If I don’t do it, something feels off, incomplete. The first time I do it, at the foot, or the side of a new boyfriend’s bed, he seems surprised. Often, if our relationship progresses, he will get impatient, and want me to hurry. Eventually, he will say, “Pray for me.”
19. Reece’s book is about the gift of our parents. It is about the great, inevitable loss that is coming to all of us who are blessed to have this gift.
20. In the poem, The Manhattan Project, Reece writes, “The quietness in my father was building and would come to define him. I was wrong to judge it. Speak, Father, and I will listen. And if you do not wish to speak, then I will listen to that.” In Hartford, “Spencer, is there anything you regret?” “Now that I am older, I would have been kinder to my mother.”
21. After finishing Emmaus, I wanted to give something to Reece at the reading, but I didn’t know what. Giving him my own writing felt juvenile, and could have been interpreted as being opportunistic. I wanted to give him something that had affected me in the same quietly profound way this book had. I emailed my friend, poet Paul Corman- Roberts. We agreed: I would give Reece my copy of Cookie Mueller’s Walking through Clear Water on a Pool Painted Black.
22. In the poem, Hartford, Reece goes to Lithuania in search of the history of his grandfather, his mother’s father, a man of many secrets, who may have fled the country because he was Jewish, during World War II. All these years later, the truth of his grandfather’s origins proves to be unknowable; dying when Reece’s mother was very young, he had deliberately shrouded his past. My father has been dead now for twenty- two years. I have lived longer without him than I ever did with him. How will I ever unearth the truth from his fictions, and the disparate fictions of his family?
23. In Hartford, Reece writes, ” Below the coffins are thick with facts like filing cabinets; some of the facts are correct, some misplaced, as the dead settle into their final category of aging, becoming a repository of mystery…”
24. “Devotion becomes the most reasonable emotion as we age; we recognize it in contrast to all the losses…” Reece writes in 12:20 in New York. “There was no more time to hate ourselves.” in Hymn.
25. Reece’s reading from The Road to Emmaus began a little after 7:00 pm. The Fifth Commandment, my favorite poem from the book, Reece’s letter to his brother about his elderly parents, is the book’s shortest. It was the second poem Reece read after speaking for fifteen minutes about the plight of the young girl’s at the orphanage. At 7:35, he approached the last two lines of the poem: I had read it every morning in the week leading up to the reading; I knew what was coming, and that I would not be able to stop it when it did. Reece’s voice choked with emotion. “Brother, last night the garden nearly froze. The dash between their dates is nearly closed.” In the darkened room, I began to cry.
Fiona Helmsley is a writer of creative non-fiction and poetry. Her writing can be found in various anthologies like Ladyland and Air in the Paragraph Line and online at websites like Jezebel, Junk Lit, The Hairpin, and The Rumpus. Her book of essays, stories, and poems, My Body Would be the Kindest of Strangers is forthcoming in 2015.