Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Farmer chooses Reece

Double portrait of Jonathan Farmer by Caroline Luther.

Jonathan Farmer

Jonathan Farmer is the Founder, Editor in Chief, and Poetry Editor of At Length. He lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his amazing wife and is a founding member of The Hinge Literary Center.

About the poem

There are two places where I’m most in love with this poem: the first two lines (“Those mornings I traveled north on I91,/passing below the basalt cliff of East Rock”) and the run of description that begins with “blue, spider-delicate in a nest of tubes.”) And then there’s one more that I love even more, but couldn’t love without those: “It is correct to love even at the wrong time.” Each one exemplifies a characteristic of Spencer Reece’s talent:

The first, his incredible ability create a metrical line so varied it sounds almost sculptural, a product of (I suspect) incredible patience that somehow stays in the lines even after that slow work is done.

In the second, his phenomenal talent for phrase-making, which is, I think, the aspect of his writing that is easiest to overlook, because it seems least consistent with his over-riding humility.

And finally: his ability to move, without warning, into these short, generalizing sentences that seem less to summarize than to articulate a need; they are, I think, the perceptive after-image of an intelligence that has taken Reece’s own advice from another poem: “We can never be with loss too long” (which also happens to be another of those generalizing lines.) I typically find these more consoling than convincing, a well-earned act of compassion extending, finally, even to his own compassion.

Which brings me to the mystery of this poem, for me: why am I so happy to have it, this piece of writing that seems to put Reece (Reece’s speaker) at the center of a story about the suffering of others? I usually hate that. It usually reeks of narcissism. But here it just breaks my heart (and, one of the oddities of art, heals it too—but more on the healing of hearts in a bit.)

I think the answer is only partly poetic. Or: I think the poetic part is dependent on something else. It’s risky to conflate biography and writing. But it’s also worth noting the obvious fact that writers are people, and that we write within the interplay of emotions, experiences, expectations and obligations &c. that add up to an identity. And while I wouldn’t love Reece’s poems without the virtues I mentioned above, I love them in large part because they are so kind—a word that (both ancestrally and actually) has a lot in common with kin.

And there is a profound sense of human kinship in Reece’s poems, a sense of the slow and patient work of such belonging—work that seems to have started long before the poem, back in the life the poem describes, and which stretches a person beyond the ease of being among his or her familiars. Reece the poet and Reece the speaker feel not just humble but humbled, so thoroughly that it does make sense, finally, to extend compassion to oneself, not because “I” matter more than anyone else, but precisely because “I” don’t. To explain it in another way (and then on to the poem, I promise), here are a few lines from a poem by Czeslaw Milosz that I turn to for consolation in my worst moments. I often think of them when I’m reading Reece:

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills….

 The poem


For A.J. Verdelle

Those mornings I traveled north on I91,
passing below the basalt cliff of East Rock
where the 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 so many young black men die here
unrecognized, their gurneys stripped,
their belongings catalogued and unclaimed.”
On the neonatal ICU, newborns breathed,
blue, spider-delicate in a nest of tubes.
A Sunday of themselves, their tissue purpled,
their eyelids the film on old water in a well,
their faces resigned in their see-through 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.

Poem used by permission of Spencer Reece.


  1. This poem by Spencer Reece is steeped in human understanding. I really, really enjoy the humanity.
    I was also very moved by the first quote from poetry by Czeslaw Milosz (a poet I am unfamiliar with). Such clarity of the 'human condition' is rare.

    Now, I am most intrigued by Jonathan Farmer - a man whose face displays open kindness and intelligent empathy. Your appreciation of Spencer Reece's writing ability fired a greater understanding from myself; and your appreciation for his communication is very much in line with my own.

    I should have liked to have known more about you, sir. You have banished me to external links : )
    I must check out the links and discover more about you!

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful poetry with us.

  2. Some people are a bit allergic to horn-tooting, aren't they? No doubt Jonathan is one of that ilk...

    Paul, for you: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/czeslaw-milosz