Disruptive Juxtaposition

Friday, July 29, 2005

Poetry Review, Spencer Reece's "The Clerk's Tale"

Poetry pundits, including this one, will be keen to align Spencer Reece’s Bakeless Prize-winning debut with Robert Lowell and his Life Studies. Reece doesn’t have exactly the same blueblood that ran in Lowell’s New English veins, but it’s close: Reece penned The Clerk’s Tale over fifteen years while working in a Brooks Brothers, which lends an air of taste and refinement to the themes at hand; the landscape is less strictly Northeastern than Lowell’s, but the tambor that undergirds his depictions of rich Florida shares with Lowell (and Stevens) the sentiment that death mothers beauty. Indeed, Reece’s exemplary “Cape Cod” could easily slip between “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereaux Wilson” and “Grandparents” and fool more than a few MFA students.

Reece is not so easily defined, however. Chords he plays that Lowell played only begin to define the strangely quiet, oddly echoing music Reece authors. The latter might be said to have begun his work as Lowellian variations, adding grace notes here, there shifting the tempo and key, before long ending up with a much-changed thing. For the grace and confidence of Reece’s poems can’t be accounted for by merely reading him against one of his (obvious) inspirations. The gray sensation of dying and grim ends may run through Reece’s poems, but completely new are such assessments as this one from “Autumn Song”:

… and I breathe in the subtle
approbation of death coming as I recognize the Byzantine look

of the trees emptying themselves of themselves. The leaves fall
like leaflets in a relentless war and the architecture of skeletons
becomes more and more apparent…

Or this from “Tonight”:

I listen to the dust from the city

gather on the necks of the saints
at the hospital’s exits I exit.

Such repetitions—“emptying themselves of themselves”, “exits I exit”—complete the implications of mortality by invoking the speaker’s presence as witness and actor. So much of Lowell, and the lesser Confessional poets, contents itself to transcribe the entropy that warps the circles in which we’ve traveled. That Reece locates himself in the natural processes of decay redeems their potential for beauty and testifies to the fact that not all is lost.

Which isn’t to say that the poems here are all doom and gloom. Reece revels in le mot juste and freely spends his linguistic fortune: in “Diminuendo”, “two lovers liberate themselves in the grasses”; in “Midnight”, “Sheep maraud across the hill’s back, / exhilarated by the dirt smells born again by spring, / the wind haunted with the songs of comrades now gone.” Especially agile with respect to the lyric and narrative impulses are Reece’s series of ghazals, “Spring Ghazals” and “Ghazals for Florida”, which switch between mentions of Anne Frank, Dostoyevsky, dead schoolchums, Cabaret rehearsals, arch adagia (“Everybody lies, I guess, and it usually happens in spring, / when the sky plumes to a deep Jesusy blue”), and ecstatic decrees (“Hey you! Come unto me! Let the meadow march into my mouth!”). Reece may just as well be addressing language itself rather than spring when he writes “How you resex the swinging trees / and sing our trembling skins to sleep.”

By and large, however, these poems ache to declare the self within the natural, cultural, and personal worlds as they each smolder away. Reece’s pursuit of this project seduces even more than the giltwork of his most lyrical moments: poems like “The Clerk’s Tale”—to which The New Yorker dedicates an entire back page—exert a beguiling effect. By describing little more than the routines he and a fellow clerk follow while closing up a Brooks Brothers, Reece asserts himself with whispery insistence:

We are more gracious than English royalty.
We dart amongst the aisles tall as hedgerows.
Watch us face into the merchandise.
How we set up and take apart mannequins
as if we were performing autopsies.

As these lines entreat, they also dare—between the surfeit of material goods that surround us and the boundaries of our lives, there is a middleman. From there it is suddenly easy to see Reece’s interest in the line, the liminal, the means of transmission from outer to inner and thou to I. “We move to the gate. It goes up. / The gate’s grating checkers our cheeks. / This is the Mall of America.” Yes, and these are its occupants: unobserved but observant, injured but hoping to mend, alone, Reece says, but whose gestures are always fraternal.

Monday, July 25, 2005

M. Ward, Music at Castle Clinton, 7/21/05

After being introduced by a WFUV voice as just the sort of “flying under the radar” artist that that radio station trumpets, M. Ward began last night’s live effort to ascend into the plain sight of the mainstream. Some of the crowd at last night’s steamy Battery Park didn’t need to be told about the singer-songwriter from Portland, Oregon: a few of his songs earned smatterings of informed applause. Good, then, that Ward strove to introduce his brand of literate and tuneful backwoods rock a one step at a time. His first song, a peppy solo guitar with mischevious minor sevenths thrown in for smirky kicks, recalled “Signe,” the beginning performance from Eric Clapton’s Unplugged. The band fell in behind him on time, and Ward was free to ride their loping country beat into some impressive and unexpected squalls of druggy feedback.

From then on, there was no telling where Ward would take his supporting three piece band next; the next hour and a half was mainly a unintended tour of the influences from which Ward has struggled to free himself. The band for their part kept up gamely with the changes between driving roots rock and muted ballad—all of it a tad boozy and worn. For one song, Ward held aside his red Fender and wavered around the mike like some unsteady character sketch of Vincent D’Onfrio’s, singing unsteadily about “fuel for a fire.” For another, the vivid and driving “Helicopter,” a noticeable Jakob Dylan rasp came into his voice which suited the exceptional lyrics: “Helicopter / Let your rope ladder down / We’ll sway into the sunset / I’ve done all I can do with this town.” When Ward sat down at an upright piano for the cabaret-style “Poor Boy Key,” one could almost hear the stately advice of Rufus Wainwright.

Ward’s most obvious influence, however, is Ryan Adams: both artists at their worst sound like archivists of great works past, mimes of 50’s doo-wop outros with extended notes and showy melisma, Johnny-Come-Latelies killing time in their garages. When these crazy-quilt Americana songs have all their stitches showing, the result can feel like hackwork—this was unfortunately the case with Ward’s song for Daniel Johnston, a slow live ballad that rhymed “story” with “glory” and exposed a surprising off-key cant to Ward’s voice.

Still, one might argue that with influences like this, who could complain? And Ward does inspire relief when, in a madcap “Rock Around the Clock”-ish tale of insomnia, he drops a line like “It’s five in the morning, and I’m wishing it was one.” (Few other lines written today are likelier to be mistaken for Bob Dylan.) Luckily though, Ward has enough strengths of his own to keep claims of hipster’s-cover-band status at bay. Introducing a song as one “about a river” and learned in Europe, he artfully launched into an electro-shock rendition of Strauss’s “The Blue Danube” that puts Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” into mind. Ward also showed himself deft with the whammy bar, shading his guitar’s tone into echoey, even ghostly territory that pulled against the hearthy country-home strains of his melodies and lyrics. And in the middle of The Carter Family’s “Oh, Take Me Back,” he pointed to the sun that had just set with the sort of spontaneous gesture that his performances lacked. Ward and crew as a band are competent and enthusiastic, and Ward as a songwriter and guitarist is capable of some heroics, but it will take a lot more practice here at sea level before this outfit gains much altitude.