- The Clerk’s Tale
The Clerk's Tale, by Spencer Reece, was selected by Louise Glück as winner of the 2003 Bakeless Prize (sponsored by the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference). At the time, Reece was virtually unpublished as a poet; only two American journals had printed his work. Since then,the New Yorker has published the collection's long title poem, "The Clerk's Tale," on the back page of its double fiction issue and conducted an interview with Reece that is available online. Emotionally powerful, with an understated tone and clean lines, the poem, as well as the book, is worthy of such attention.
"The Clerk's Tale" details its speaker's experience working at "an expensive clothier." Reece himself is an assistant manager of Brooks Brothers in Lantana, Florida. Chaucer's tale, from which Reece's poem borrows its title, is a parable of marriage and obedience. The poem explores these themes through the discipline and union of two men working together at a mall, learning the rosary of "rep ties and bow ties,/of full-Windsor knots and half-Windsor knots,/of tattersall, French cuff, and English spread collars,/of foulards, neats, and internationals,/of pincord, houndstooth, and sharkskin." The mall's light resembles a "Gothic cathedral" and the fraternity [End Page 211] between the two men (the speaker and an "old homosexual") is not unlike a marriage—when they leave the mall, "sometimes snow falls like rice." The clothing store's lessons in selflessness and obedience, as the speaker gives himself over to the task at hand and to the multitudes who pass through the store each day, are indicative of the speaker's journey throughout the collection as a whole. Only a poet such as Reece, who holds a degree from the Harvard Divinity School and writes beneath a picture of George Herbert's chapel, could locate this sentiment for us in the commercial corridors of the Mall of America.
As a whole, The Clerk's Tale tells a story of loss. There is an authority to the speaker's voice that seems to emerge from the loneliness and sacrifice he is repeatedly called upon to make. The love of a Minnesota farm and its loss is chronicled in several poems, most memorably in "Midnight" and "Winter Scene." The latter concludes with the wrenching final line, "Soon I must leave this house, give the dog away." The baldness of the statement, so unadorned and direct, carries an enormous emotional weight. The stripping away of a home, of companionship, of family and even, finally, of the speaker's own sense of self and sanity are unsentimentally recorded. All that remains for the speaker is a sense of silence, and it is from this place that many of the poems seem to emerge. Reece writes in "Florida Ghazals" that "I am a pioneer of silence." Ultimately, that powerful sequence concludes with the insight that "the lonely claim my voice and make it strong."
This sense of giving over the self to something larger—often the masses of men—haunts the final lines of the title poem as well. "See us loosening our ties among you/ We are alone/There is no longer any need to express ourselves." These elegantly shaped poems, written out of self-abnegation, find a transcendence within discipline and loss.