The Road to Emmaus

The Road to Emmaus

by Spencer Reece

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Longlisted for the National Book Award

A moving, subtle sequence of narrative poems, from a sharp new poetic voice

Two strangers walk toward Emmaus. Christ has just been crucified, and they are heartbroken—until a third man joins them on the road and comforts them. Once they reach Emmaus and break bread, the pair


Longlisted for the National Book Award

A moving, subtle sequence of narrative poems, from a sharp new poetic voice

Two strangers walk toward Emmaus. Christ has just been crucified, and they are heartbroken—until a third man joins them on the road and comforts them. Once they reach Emmaus and break bread, the pair realizes they have been walking with Christ himself. But in the moment they recognize him, he disappears. Spencer Reece draws on this tender story in his mesmerizing collection—one that fearlessly confronts love and its loss, despair and its consolation, and faith in all of its various guises.

Reece's central figure in The Road to Emmaus is a middle-aged man who becomes a priest in the Episcopal Church; these poems follow him to New York City, to Honduras, to a hospital where he works as a chaplain, to a prison, to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. With language of simple, lyrical beauty that gradually accrues weight and momentum, Reece spins compelling dramas out of small moments: the speaker, living among a group of orphans, wondering "Was it true, what they said, that a priest is a house lit up?"; two men finding each other at a Coming Out Group; a man trying to become visible after a life that had depended on not being seen.

A yearning for connection, an ache of loneliness, and the instant of love disappearing before our eyes haunt this long-awaited second collection from Spencer Reece.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Reece, in his follow-up to 2001's The Clerk's Tale, displays virtues may not be rare, taken individually, but are unique in their combination; writing about places—in Florida, New England, Europe—with sardonic detail, and telling stories of people who might be at home in Henry James. Reece has an eye for the bizarre, but strives to sum things up as he addresses love between men, middle age, and worldly disappointment with raw feeling, and he directs his passion not only outward and inward, but upward, towards the Christian God. In a 17-part meditation about Reece's former partner in Florida, ducks on a pond "quack-quacked,/ copulating into oblivion as if sex were religion./ When I could not reach what I loved,/ the world was rent." When Reece released his celebrated debut he was a menswear salesman in Palm Beach; he has now been ordained as an Episcopal priest (a memoir is forthcoming). That journey from one place to another, one vocation to another, informs the whole book, which encompasses self-disgust but begins and ends with compassion, from "the neonatal ICU" (where Reece served as a hospital chaplain) to a walk in a park, and a gay marriage, in New York, where "The Gospel of John was right:/ the world holds so much life." (Apr.)
From the Publisher

“For Spencer Reece, humbling is a given. Even though his language in The Road to Emmaus, his first book since his ordination, is often remarkably inventive and sometimes formally elegant, the poems' tone never betrays awareness of his achievement . . . There's a quality of devotion in all of these that can make the secular seem sacred. One can truly attend through attention, the writing suggests, and the poems manage to be unwavering--almost unvarying--in the quality of their gaze.” —Jonathan Farmer, Slate

“Reece follows up his acclaimed first book with a gorgeous series of poems in verse and prose about a middle-aged man's coming to terms with religious faith, going as far as becoming a priest, a hospital chaplain, and a quiet chronicler of everyday suffering. 'It is correct to love even at the wrong time,' he writes of a visit to newborns in an ICU. Reece's style is straightforward, but always graceful, understatedly beautiful. These poems compassionately describe all the stops along this journey, which leads across America and elsewhere, always inviting readers to respond: 'it was an interview, much of life is an interview.'” —Craig Morgan Teicher, NPR

“The Road to Emmaus confirms why I have always looked to Reece's work not only as inspiration for my own poems, but also as a guide for my soul. In this collection I follow his every footstep as he walks toward himself-toward myself-stopping to admire or fear what we see in ourselves, in others, in each other. Each poem a portrait or a self-portrait exquisitely and painstakingly drawn along the way, by the side of that proverbial road we journey with him, encountering life in all its loneliness and wholeness, its lucidness and doubt, its bitterness and glory.” —Richard Blanco, Presidential Inaugural Poet and author of Looking for The Gulf Motel

“These poems form a true and riveting narrative. Reading Reece makes you recall why you love poetry.” —Annie Dillard, author of The Maytrees and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

“Though many of Spencer Reece's poems move forward with the narrative punch of short stories, they are packed with poetry's exquisite insight and metaphoric brilliance. These are moral poems that speak of loneliness in terms so intimate that they seem to breech loneliness; they are both documents of isolation and manifestos of love. And they achieve such embrace via lyric bursts that are arresting, evocative, and profound.” —Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon

“Reece's poems are at once splendidly fresh and deeply rooted in poetry's rich loam . . . Reece's striking debut yields new revelations with each reading.” —Booklist

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Read an Excerpt

The Road to Emmaus

By Spencer Reece

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2014 Spencer Reece
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71334-8



    Those mornings I traveled north on I-91,
    passing below the basalt cliff of East Rock
    where elms discussed their genealogies.
    I was a chaplain at Hartford Hospital,
    took the Myers-Briggs with Sister Margaret,
    learned I was an I drawn to Es.
    In small group I said, "I do not like it,
    the way young black men die in the ER,
    shot, unrecognized, their gurneys stripped,
    their belongings catalogued and unclaimed."
    In the neonatal ICU, newborns breathed,
    blue, spider-delicate in nests of tubes.
    A Sunday of themselves, their tissue purpled,
    their eyelids the film on old water in a well,
    their faces resigned in plastic attics,
    their skin mottled mildewed wallpaper.
    It is correct to love even at the wrong time.
    On rounds, the newborns eyed me, each one
    like Orpheus in his dark hallway, saying:
    I knew I would find you, I knew I would lose you.


First, J. Robert Oppenheimer wrote his paper on dwarf stars—"What happens to a massive star that burns out?" he asked. His calculations suggested that instead of collapsing it would contract indefinitely, under the force of its own gravity. The bright star would disappear but it would still be there; where there had been brilliance there would be a blank. Soon after, workers built Oak Ridge, the accumulation of Cemesto hutments not placed on any map. They built a church, a school, a bowling alley. From all over, families drove through the muddy ruts. The ground swelled about the ruts like flesh stitched by sutures. My father, a child, watched the loads on the tops of their cars tip. Gates let everyone in and out with a pass. Forbidden to tell anyone they were there, my father's family moved in, quietly, behind the chain-link fence. Niels Bohr said: "This bomb might be our great hope." My father watched his parents eat breakfast: his father opened his newspaper across the plate of bacon and eggs, his mother smoked Camel Straights, the ash from her cigarette cometing across the back of the obituaries. They spoke little. Increasingly the mother drank Wild Turkey with her women friends from the bowling league. Generators from the Y-12 plant droned their ambition. There were no birds. General Leslie Groves marched the boardwalks, yelled, his boots pressed the slates and the mud bubbled up like viscera. My father watched his father enter the plant. My shy father went to the library, which was a trailer with a circus tent painted on the side. There he read the definition of "uranium," which was worn to a blur. My father read one Hardy Boys mystery after another. It was August 1945. The librarian smiled sympathetically at the twelve-year-old boy. "Time to go home," the librarian said. They named the bomb Little Boy. It weighed 9,700 pounds. It was the size of a go-kart. On the battle cruiser Augusta, President Truman said, "This is the greatest thing in history." That evening, my father's parents mentioned Japanese cities. Everyone was quiet. It was the quiet of the exhausted and the innocent. The quietness inside my father was building and would come to define him. I was wrong to judge it. Speak, Father, and I will listen. And if you do not wish to speak, then I will listen to that.


    Monaco was clean, with small clean streets.
    There was not much in the way of a shore.
    There was hardly any place to go.
    How feminine the tiny cityscape was—
    all whimsical curves and dark, rich cul-de-sacs.
    So unlike Corsica, its coarse cousin nearby—
    an island of Mafia, sharp rocks,
    and hairy wild boars that twitched like genitals.

    Delicate Monaco,
    how on earth did you protect yourself?
    Before the Ansbacher bank office,
    one clipped, well-behaved London plane tree,
    not welcoming like ordinary trees,
    was kept apart by a white spear-tipped fence,
    and had a somewhat diffident sense of noblesseoblige.
    Through the cream silk brocade window treatments,
    you could see it: it did not contain birds,

    repelled the idea of nests, its roots
    trained and snipped. At night, it was lit.
    Winds shook the leaves like a showgirl's tassels.
    In the palace hung a portrait of Princess Grace's family,
    an extravaganza of pastel sfumato by R. W. Cowan,
    blurring every frail, authentic thing.
    Surrounded by high cliffs,
    the air in the principality backed up like in a closet.
    Lovers smooched on the embankment.
    The night cross-dressed into dawn.

    When the man and woman arrived at the Hôtel de Paris,
    the staff assumed they were married.
    The German Jet Ski instructor was unsure
    and asked: "Are you brother and sister?"
    They paused, demurely, and smiled.
    The mystery of their bond intensified it.
    The man and woman were in their late thirties
    or early forties; they were not young nor were they old.

    The woman was French and wore a white linen shirt,
    starched and pressed. She made her money in the drug trade
    (laundering money from the sale of cocaine or heroin
    until the money became unrecognizably clean),
    but all the man knew was that she sold works of art:
    a Matisse here, a Picasso there—
    her transactions often involving a visit to the Bahamas.
    She was what she said she was.
    But we are rarely what we say we are.
    They met at a sales counter in Palm Beach
    where the man was ringing up items at 75 percent off each.
    She invited him on a trip,
    after she gave him a sizeable tip.
    The man, a poor American,
    meant to say no, but agreed instead.
    Tall, athletic, effeminate, with a mincing gait,
    he looked as if he were being chased
    by something no one could see.
    He wore needle-pointed shoes by Stubbs &&&; Wootton
    and dressed in cashmere and shantung.
    The broad-shouldered Frenchwoman grimaced,
    was referred to as "handsome."
    Ample her gestures, ample her need to please;
    if her tone was not sexual, it came close.

    The couple exhibited variations
    the world never embraced, but presented as a couple
    the world embraced promptly,
    for the world trusted what was coupled.
    Both controlled their wonder.
    Whatever their motives,
    the naïveté they displayed hid their intentions.
    Skirting promises at a café, she asked:
    "What shall we name our children, mon petit cheri?"
    They made a myth for everyone to see.
    One day, similar to all their days,
    the couple went to the Casino in Monte Carlo.
    There they met the androgynous Baroness von Lindenhoffer.
    Many proposed the baroness was lesbian,
    but of this she never spoke.
    Some believed her to be a conundrum—
    her muteness alluding perhaps to a hidden passion
    or a complicated reaction to herself
    for reasons long forgotten or buried.
    This might have been true, but just as probable,
    some thought her shy,
    an unsuccessful heterosexual who was deeply mannish.
    Moving about imperiously in black patent leather high-heeled shoes
    custom-made for her large feet,
    she exuded isolation as if it were a scent.
    Something inside her had ceased.
    Even if all sexualities fail,
    the baroness, in this regard, was magnificent.

    The Frenchwoman sold the baroness a Toulouse-Lautrec.
    Receiving the couple for cakes and tea,
    the baroness wrote out her check
    and began a conversation about her brief marriage
    to a hairy Russian acrobat. Her makeup was heavy
    as a clown's, and a red polka-dotted muumuu
    sheeted her large, ill-defined parts.
    Beneath her muumuu her many crevices were compacted with talc.
    Yet despite efforts to look and smell womanly,
    people mistook her for a man.
    When she answered the phone in her plummy alto,
    her posh English accent was influenced by German,
    so words would be disguised by v s and z s.
    To the caller, she said: "No, I am a v oman."
    On a chintz love seat, each hip bookended by a pug,
    she sat and said: "You z eem a lovely couple!"
    She meant what she said
    but she did not say what she meant.

    Then there was talk of places they had traveled
    and feelings of superiority
    at having seen what others had not:
    "Oh, you haven't been there?" and "Oh, you must go!"
    Through the large picture window,
    beyond the baroness's head,
    piled high with hair dyed red,
    gargantuan cruise ships were set on the Monegasque sea
    like wedding cakes with glittering tiers of candles.
    From the baroness's earlobes, hanging low,
    her Verdura eardrops made of peridot,
    so that when she laughed her deep upper-class laugh—
    Hardee-har-har! and Tee-hee-hee!—
    her head tinkled like a chandelier in an earthquake.
    She had the cultivated dignity of those
    who withhold their lives.
    Inserting another biscotto behind her lips
    which were puffed up and shaped not unlike luggage handles,
    she winked like someone on the make
    (but on the make for what?),
    and said, sotto voce: "Here in Monaco our favorite v ord is 'more'!"

    The couple scanned the shore's shuttered clutter—
    the sea published its gossip,
    flashed its gilded mirrors.
    The sun accelerated beauty and its loss.
    No children for miles and beyond, down the Côte d'Azur,
    Brigitte Bardot, in St.-Tropez, locked her house,
    cats licking her purple-veined ankles.

    Behind her coffee table
    upon which bonbons were displayed,
    the baroness finished the story of her life as a wife.
    She expanded her chest like a concertina,
    memory enlivening her,
    her eyes fixed in surprise with Botox.
    In a look from history's unwritten side,
    she attempted to be sentimental and failed.
    She paused like an old steamer.
    Spangled and remote, her mascara-clotted eyelids closed.
    Should she warn the couple?
    Although questionably feminine, she was maternal.
    Then that thought, or half-thought, passed.

    The baroness shrugged
    with the weight of candy and age.
    She had become what she had become.
    She thanked the couple, admired her new purchase.
    Already she felt the hint of boredom with them
    and began to anticipate their imminent expulsion.
    Straightening her body's luggage,
    a final time she assessed the couple of ambitious compromises,
    aware that nothing stains the heart like a mariage blanc,
    and stamped them—Mwah! Mwah!—
    with the imprimatur of two kisses each.

    The couple stood like marionettes,
    left after a promise to rendezvous—
    the absence of conviction was not missed by the three.
    Under a royal-blue awning,
    behind a marble balustrade,
    past croquet wickets and phallic topiary,
    beyond red berries cracked with sugar,
    the baroness diminished in the couple's vision.
    They could just make out her muffled laughter
    as she chatted to a maître d'
    about the men she wished to date.

    And when at last the baroness was alone,
    melancholy molded her the way night molds Paris:
    she retreated into her cold hole,
    dropped her pretenses,
    once more accepted her solitary role,
    and removed her girdle, bra, and panties.
    The elastics, straps, and clasps
    had left imprinted welts on her skin
    that looked like a series of scars and stitches.
    Her flesh was released. She sighed.
    She farted.
    And there she stood, sagging like an old cathedral.

    The couple did not last.
    Having chosen wrongly, plausibly, they fell apart,
    like the couple in Godard's Le Mépris.
    Their time ended
    after a spat at the Hôtel du Cap.
    Or was it a kiss in the Boboli Gardens?
    Had she wanted more than a cover?
    Had he covered more than he'd wanted?
    How faceted, coveted, and intricate, the heart!
    Behind its casements,
    fixed in its singular setting, who owns it?
    He could not be kept.
    She withdrew her money.
    On their last night in Monaco, she turned to him
    and wondered if her life had meant anything.
    He did not answer.
    He had offered himself to someone who found truth difficult,
    which required one to abide and be circumspect,
    for is not the truth ugly, more often than not?
    (The truth, what is the truth?)
    When they left the restaurant, she paid
    using a heavy black American Express card.
    Each took a doggy bag and smelled of cooked meat.
    This alignment of opposite sexes
    had provided solace, and for a time,
    each had assumed a place, discerned a way to live.

    They lived on,
    both aware the one had altered the other:
    whether intended or not,
    the act could not be undone.
    What they recalled, when they recalled it,
    was often wrong, or was it that so much went wrong
    and that was why they kept recalling?
    At the mention of Monaco, they recounted adornment—
    the agapanthus bursting in fists of amethyst, old men playing boules,
    and blue yachts tilting on a malachite sea,
    or were they malachite yachts tilting on a blue sea?
    Wherever they went afterwards,
    their minds would sometimes fall on Monaco
    and their encounter with the androgynous baroness.

    Monaco, Monaco—
    frivolous, ridiculous, minuscule.
    Was it there they came to know danger,
    how one could disappear into a beautiful lie?
    There were lies in their truth
    and truth in their lies—
    sometimes to love is to lie and to lie
    is to love. Each, in their separate lives,
    mentioned Monaco with deference, out of shyness,
    yes, but also shame, and that need
    to abridge the past. Do you recognize them?
    They were not a couple, but they were a pair.
    the sea pushes against Monaco.
    Jewelry-store owners lock their doors,
    don white gloves
    to lay the polished gems down in long green felt trays,
    sheeting them with a placating, measured hush—
    the way one lays orphans down to sleep in an orphanage.
    In a grand, drafty hallway,
    the baroness has had her portrait painted and affixed to a wall.
    The paint has halted her age, softened her sex.
    On her balcony,
    she can see the narrow, dead-end streets
    embed themselves like bobby pins
    holding the escarpments and shrubbery in place
    like wigs. She has forgotten the couple.

    In the dark,
    hotels, banks, and the Casino shrink.
    Transient, glamorous,
    the moon spreads her cape of baubles across the sea,
    leaning over the dollhouses that make up Monaco,
    lighting up each rich subject,
    feeling into the rooms,
    fingering the miniatures.


    Waiting with an unfinished, finished look
    behind honeysuckles that crown Old Saybrook,
    she is reading Vita Sackville-West,
    he has food on his moth-eaten sweater vest.
    Here's the Oriental rug, still steeped in piss
    from their bulldog who barked like an activist.
    She seems happy, reigning with creams you FedExed,
    rubbing his scalp, patched with scabby flecks
    (as his squamous-cell carcinomas sprout,
    the local dermatologist cuts them out
    or frosts the growths with liquid nitrogen).
    Tonight they talk of their last vegetable garden,
    count out their pills in chipped cereal bowls
    (you know the ones), check their sugar levels,
    bicker over books misplaced, tchotchkes
    lost, their tongues like well-used church keys.
    Brother, last night half the garden nearly froze.
    The dash between their dates is nearly closed.


Excerpted from The Road to Emmaus by Spencer Reece. Copyright © 2014 Spencer Reece. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Spencer Reece is a poet and priest. His first collection, The Clerk's Tale, won the Bakeless Prize in 2003. He has received an NEA grant, a Guggenheim grant, a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, a Whiting Writers' Award, and the Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship. His poems have been published in The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Scholar, and The New Republic. He served at the Honduran orphanage Our Little Roses, and works for the Bishop of Spain at the Reformed Episcopal Church, Iglesia Española Reformada Episcopal.
Spencer Reece is a poet and priest. His first collection, The Clerk’s Tale, won the Bakeless Prize in 2003. He has received an NEA grant, a Guggenheim grant, the Witter Bynner Prize from the Library Congress, a Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Amy Lowell Travelling Scholarship. His poems have been published in The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Scholar, and The New Republic. He served at the Honduran orphanage Our Little Roses, and works for the Bishop of Spain at the Reformed Episcopal Church, Iglesia Española Reformada Episcopal.

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