Loving at the Wrong Time

Cover of The Road to Emmaus.The Road to Emmaus
by Spencer Reece
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

“She had the cultivated dignity of those / who withhold their lives,” Spencer Reece writes of an aging, androgynous baroness encountered in the first of several long poems in his second poetry collection, The Road to Emmaus. It’s a characteristically perceptive description that could be applied to many of the book’s poems as well, but as with the lonely baroness, the poems’ restrained, carefully crafted surfaces only highlight the depth of emotion beneath. Stitching together narratives from religion, history, and myth, The Road to Emmaus is a sort of hero’s journey, following Reece from his emotional wanderings as a gay man seeking love and acceptance to his eventual spiritual homecoming in the form of a mid-life call to the Episcopalian priesthood. Yet at its core, this book is about the continuous struggle between two contradictory impulses: the impulse to withhold and protect oneself and the impulse to be open to love.

Loving in the Face of Loss

This dynamic plays out poignantly in the collection’s opening poem, “ICU,” in which Reece recalls his time as a hospital chaplain. Reece describes the premature infants as “blue, spider-delicate in nests of tubes ... their faces resigned in plastic attics.” It seems reckless to let oneself love something so fragile, so unlikely to survive, but Reece affirms, almost as if to convince himself, “It is correct to love even at the wrong time.” This statement is a spiritual imperative and the central challenge of the book: How do we love in the face of inevitable loss? How can we convince ourselves that it’s worth the pain to love what we cannot keep? As a chaplain, Reece is helpless to save the newborns, but at the end of the poem they become “each one / like Orpheus in his dark hallway, saying: / I knew I would find you, I knew I would lose you.” In this role reversal, the newborns are the ones who cannot hold onto the beloved, and Reece is the one who is disappearing. The poem subtly revises the Orpheus myth: in Reece’s version, the finding is worth the loss.

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