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In a recent double fiction issue, The New Yorker devoted the entire back page to a single poem, "The Clerk's Tale," by Spencer Reece. The poet who drew such unusual attention has a surprising background: for many years he has worked for Brooks Brothers, a fact that lends particular nuance to the title of his collection. The Clerk's Tale pays homage not only to Chaucer but to the clerks' brotherhood of service in the mall, where "the light is bright and artificial, / yet not dissimilar to that found in a Gothic ...
In a recent double fiction issue, The New Yorker devoted the entire back page to a single poem, "The Clerk's Tale," by Spencer Reece. The poet who drew such unusual attention has a surprising background: for many years he has worked for Brooks Brothers, a fact that lends particular nuance to the title of his collection. The Clerk's Tale pays homage not only to Chaucer but to the clerks' brotherhood of service in the mall, where "the light is bright and artificial, / yet not dissimilar to that found in a Gothic cathedral." The fifty poems in The Clerk's Tale are exquisitely restrained, shot through with a longing for permanence, from the quasi-monastic life of two salesmen at Brooks Brothers to the poignant lingering light of a Miami dusk to the weight of geography on an empty Minnesota farm. Gluck describes them as having "an effect I have never quite seen before, half cocktail party, half passion play . . . We do not expect virtuosity as the outward form of soul-making, nor do we associate generosity and humanity with such sophistication of means, such polished intelligence . . . Much life has gone into the making of this art, much patient craft."
Promise me you will not forget Portofino.
Promise me you will find the trompe l’oeil on the bedroom walls at the Splendido.
The walls make a scene you cannot enter.
Perhaps then you will comprehend this longing for permanence I often mentioned to you.
Across the harbor? A yellow church. A cliff.
Promise me you will witness the day diminish.
And when the roofs darken, when the stars drift until they shatter on the sea’s finish, you will know what I told you is true when I said abandonment is beautiful.
The Clerk’s Tale
I am thirty-three and working in an expensive clothier, selling suits to men I call “Sir.” These men are muscled, groomed and cropped—with wives and families that grow exponentially.
Mostly I talk 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, nailhead, and sharkskin.
I often wear a blue pin-striped suit.
My hair recedes and is going gray at the temples.
On my cheeks there are a few pimples.
For my terrible eyesight, horn-rimmed spectacles.
One of my fellow-workers is an old homosexual who works hard and wears bracelets with jewels.
No one can rival his commission checks.
On his break he smokes a Benson & Hedges cigarette, puffing expectantly as a Hollywood starlet.
He has carefully applied a layer of Clinique bronzer to enhance the tan on his face and neck.
His hair is gone except for a few strands which are combed across his scalp.
He examines his manicured lacquered nails.
I admire his studies attention to details: his tie stuck to his shirt with masking tape, his teeth capped, his breath mint in place.
The old homosexual and I laugh in the back over a coarse joke involving an octopus.
Our banter is staccato, staged and close like those “Spanish Dances” by Granados.
I sometimes feel we are in a musical—gossiping backstage between our numbers.
He drags deeply on his cigarette.
Most of his life is over.
Often he refers to himself as “an old faggot.” He does this bemusedly, yet timidly.
I know why he does this.
He does this because his acceptance is finally complete—and complete acceptance is always bittersweet. Our hours are long. Our backs bent.
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.
A naked body, without pretense, is of no use.
It grows late.
I hear the front metal gate close down.
We begin folding the ties correctly according to color.
The shirts—Oxfords, broadcloths, pinpoints—must be sized, stacked, or rehashed.
The old homosexual removes his right shoe, allowing his gigantic bunion to swell.
There is the sound of cash being counted—coins clinking, bills swishing, numbers whispered—One, two, three, four, five, six, seven .s.s.
We are changed when the transactions are done—older, dirtier, dwarfed.
A few late customers gawk in at us.
We say nothing. Our silence will not be breached.
The lights go off, one by one—the dressing room lights, the mirror lights.
Then it is very late. How late? Eleven?
We move to the gate. It goes up.
The gat’s grating checker our cheeks.
This is the Mall of America.
The light is bright and artificial, yet not dissimilar to that found in a Gothic cathedral.
You must travel down the long hallways to the exits before you encounter natural light.
One final formality: the manager checks out bags.
The old homosexual reaches into his over-the-shoulder leather bag—the one he bought on his European travels with his companion of many years.
He finds a stick of lip balm and applies it to his lips liberally, as if shellacking them.
Then he inserts one last breath mint and offers one to me. The gesture is fraternal and occurs between us many times.
At last, we bid each other good night.
I watch him fade into the many-tiered parking lot, where the thousands of cars have come and are now gone. This is how our day ends.
This is how our day always ends.
Sometimes snow falls like rice.
See us take to our dimly lit exits, disappearing into the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul; Minneapolis is sleek and St. Paul, named after the man who had to be shown, is smaller, older, and somewhat withdrawn.
Behind us, the moon pauses over the vast egg-like dome of the mall.
See us loosening our ties among you.
We are alone.
There is no longer any need to express ourselves.
Copyright © 2004 by Spencer Reece.
Reprinted byy permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Contents Foreword by Louise Glück
Portofino The Clerk’s Tale Chiaroscuro A Bestiary i. The Snake ii. The Frog iii. The Bat iv. The Cat v. The Elephant Tonight Then Chrysanthemums Autumn Song Midnight Winter Scene Diminuendo Ghazals for Spring Cape Cod Ponies Triptych i. Politics ii. Homosexuality iii. Easter Étude Florida Ghazals Interior Addresses i. To You ii. Divinity Avenue iii. To My Brother iv. Pentimento v. Coda vi. United Hospital vii. Blue viii. To Those Grown Mute ix. Fugue x. To Martha My Nurse xi. Minneapolis xii. Beverly Road xiii. Afton xiv. Two Bright Rooms xv. Boca Raton xvi. Loxahatchee xvii. Summerland Key xviii. Worth Avenue xix. I Have Dreamed of You So Much xx. Vizcaya Interlude Morbidezza