The grand weird gesture of the title “Gilgamesh” and the gentle cruelty of the first line—‘We lived on a lake with Muscovy ducks’—gives the prevailing past tense of ‘to live’ a suffocating force. As the stanza beads, hazy sounds invoke the sensibility of epic: Thr, ucks, ust, sco: these are inescapable. The repetition of ‘ducks’ and the repetitions of ‘thrust,’ combined with all that came before, give the reader a sense of time’s long cycle, of the hard nostalgia of the condemned. Then Reece changes the tune.
At first it seems a love poem, and then a lament, and then a lament still, and finally a wicked and petty act of vengeance. There are two ways Reece achieves this cloak and dagger work, one easier to decode than the other. The obvious is his testing the limits of plain speech—the second stanza is hardly anything else. Indeed, were it not for the charming ‘Paul O’Shaughnessy and Spencer Reece were joined on a celery green love-seat,‘ the spell so artfully cast by the first three lines would be dissipated by the tone-deaf true life anti-poetry of ‘gay community center,’ ‘we played Scrabble,’ and their kin. But he frequently rights himself, either with seemingly accidental eloquence (‘Capote, Madame Bovary, a biography of Anne Boleyn’) or simple lyricism:
On the edges of our dreams was the sea
which the moon walked across with soft footsteps.
The poem is a semantic civil war. What seems disarmingly honest on the first read—we learn that their rescued lab was named Butch, that he needed Xanax, and that Paul’s sisters are named Joan, Ann, and Maureen—becomes petulant and passive–aggressive with time. Reece is rubbing his beloved’s nose in these dull details, the mean bastard: claiming the sick aunt, the Irish geography, and the spires of Boston all as witness to his devotion. The lyric moments, meanwhile, seem like a sincere attempt to find the emotional resonance that only poetry can find—only to transmogrify into a bullying performance of poetic power.
The final five stanzas are almost unmarred by plain speech slumming, and they include the eviscerating ‘Your Christ-kiss issued no more.’ The promise of the title and first stanza is fulfilled. A sense of the epic, again; a saga across generations, eras, and kingdoms adheres to the closing lines. A quiet coda, a lost beloved’s face tightening, returns the poem to a sense of distance, the imagined present even more remote than the past.
O lover and beloved; O ancient and unyielding strangeness. Although Spencer Reece is ostensibly both the author of the poem and a major character within it, we learn almost nothing about him. The speaker is no one, a mirror. The ‘we’ he deploys so frequently is only an attachment to the ‘you,’ a shadow of the flesh and blood beloved. And yet the ‘I’ must exist, that is its only imperative, and so it creates masks, substitutes, and avatars. It is in the creation of these masks and their deployment that most of the lyric power inheres. Reece cannot talk about his own wounds or desires, and so he becomes the aunt who lost a finger in the Blitz, the propeller-scarred manatees, the palm fronds shaking ‘wildly as pornography,’ the friend with a stillborn, the Everglades in their ‘nervous extinction,’ and the other young men who ‘love you at first sight and plead with you to stay.’
Reece’s sublimation finally includes the whole world—or at least Florida. The beloved’s face ‘tightens’ in recognition of Reece’s many masks. The poet-lover finds tenderness in that recognition, although probably there is none. In a thousand years‘ time, ‘gay community center’ will certainly lose what little meaning it has now, although ‘Christ-kiss’ and the thrusting of ducks will retain their power. The dissonance, the civil war, and the unacknowledged subtext of “Gilgamesh” mysteriously increases the value and depth of the work. Never has a scorned lover tried to write so pure a poem but achieved something so transcendentally petty.
2 responses to “FL: Spencer Reece’s “Gilgamesh,” or S. Reece Is a Mean Bastard & Heartsick”
This read has fundamentally changed my perspective on the piece. Now the real question: is Reece as special a craftsman as you make him out to be? The weird quandary of the critic.
He is a strange case, which is partly why I was drawn to him. He possesses real gifts, but deploys them so meanly. It probably has something to do with the democratizing nature of his Episcopal faith and the long obscurity in which he worked before being “discovered.” I suspect his earliest works were much more lyrical. I suspect that in twenty years, when he is nearer to death, that his writing will become paper-thin, haunted, brittle, and much much better.