Silence, like speech, can be both cruel and profound. It's the fool's best friend, the tyrant's accomplice, the pissed-off lover's dagger; it's more beautiful than words, it's golden. "Painting is silent poetry," the Greek poet and epigrammatist Simonides wrote, "and poetry is painting that speaks." Which would make Spencer Reece's debut collection, The Clerk's Tale, painting that speaks of silence.
Reece's book is like a tiny treatise on acoustic poverty. It's filled with references to autistic brothers, to "those grown mute," to gymnasium addicts "silent in their strength," to the "deep silence" that follows a teenage boy's tryst with a porno mag. "Down here history is made in proportion to the amount of silence lost," Reece writes in "Summerland Key." The book's central question seems to come in "Florida Ghazals": "When does silence go from being an asset to being a liability?" (One answer: during job interviews and oral examinations.)
The titular poem, previously published in the New Yorker, is drawn from Reece's days as a salesman at the Brooks Brothers in the Mall of America. He writes tenderly of his relationship with an older colleague, and the dignified deference of these two gay men in an enclave of old boys "with wives and families that grow exponentially." The haberdashers tell dirty jokes in the back room, but they're most united in their wordless, lonely camaraderie after close. "We are alone," Reece writes. "There is no longer any need to express ourselves." Late at night, after the money has been counted and the customers have gone home, the mall's "light is bright and artificial, yet not dissimilar to that found in a Gothic cathedral." I like the circumlocution of this last line, though as a hopeless empiricist who has also worked at the Mall of America, I can say that the after-hours light there is, in fact, vastly dissimilar to that found in a Gothic cathedral.
Reece's weakness for dicey metaphors crops up a few more times. In one of his "Ghazals for Spring," he has "Lovers fling their arms open like medicine cabinets/offering their baptized scalps to fun new people like thesauruses." (Where can one find these romantics handing out thesauruses?) And he occasionally falters with strained (parodic?) nods to oldfangled, syntactically cute rhymes: "The house breathed and shook like a lover/as I took for myself time needed to recover."
But alongside the modest genius of his clerk's tale, there are several multi-part poems of similarly haunting, economical free verse. (Reece's ghazals are spiritually but not metrically linked to that form). A somewhat world-battered romantic, Reece can be both delicate and grimy. "Bring me to the dirt," goes another of his vernal ghazals, "let my pores ooze with the brine of discotheques." And though he never lets loose with a full-bore joke, he has a smart half-smile wit ("Sea horses shift in the shallows like coy Tiresiases and say: 'Relax, everyone's bisexual.'"). In the end, his tender confessions are nearly as sad and lovely as the sound of nothing at all.