The Bard in Retail
How Brooks Brothers Gave a Young Poet Rhyme and Reason
By Bill Duryea
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page D01
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla.
He slips his palm beneath a stack of pale lavender polo shirts and slides them off the shelf. The stack is listing, deflated.
Spencer Reece, assistant manager of the Brooks Brothers store in the Gardens Mall in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is filling some time on a slow Saturday afternoon when the number of shoppers is no match for the sales force.
He unfolds a shirt on a wide, hip-high counter top.
He repositions the sheet of crackly tissue paper, lays a stiff plastic rectangle on top and refolds the sleeves, then the waist.
"It's like building sandcastles on the shore," he says. "One person can come along like a wave and wash it all away."
Reece, 40, is lanky with close-cropped graying hair. He looks old and young all at once. When he speaks he animates the beginning of his sentences, letting them resolve quietly, as if to let the meaning sink in.
While he freshens the shirts, Reece talks about what it is like to lose everything, to start over, to find salvation in a modest job. And to turn all that into art.
Reece's first book of poetry, "The Clerk's Tale," won the prestigious Bakeless Prize from the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference and was published in April.
So spending time with him at his day job (which pays $30,000 a year) is a bit like visiting T.S. Eliot at the bank, or going on a house call with William Carlos Williams.
"When I was growing up, my family traveled all over. We had a house on Cape Cod. Two in the Keys.
"It used to kind of embarrass me," he says. "But they went bankrupt. Now that's all gone. It seems to be a recurring theme."
He extracts the plastic board and doubles the shirt over, so the Golden Fleece logo is plainly visible on the rolled edge, and then reassembles the stack.
"Doesn't that look better?" he says, replacing the shirts in the gap on the shelf.
He repeats the pattern with the turquoise and then again with the navy blue, seven neat motions to restore retail order.
Just then a stocky young man who has clearly grown up with salespeople waiting patiently at his shoulder enters the store with a small coterie of family. He paws over the 30 colors on display, asks his family's opinions about the pink, the coral, the peach. He is a big wave lapping at Reece's castle.
"You have to be at peace with it," Reece says with mock solemnity, looking over and then back to the small task at hand.
Getting the Words Out
"I just thought this wasn't going to happen," Reece says.
Depending on when you date the beginning of Reece's writing career, that feeling of futility lasted somewhere between a decade and 20 years. But "The Clerk's Tale" as a collection of work was 15 years in the making.
During that time he submitted most of the 50 poems individually or in batches to an uncounted number of magazines. He found takers in a handful of obscure journals, Poetry Wales and Painted Bride Quarterly among them.
But he had higher aspirations. Each year he would retype the collection and send it to 15 first-book contests. The major ones, of course: The Yale Younger Poets Series (which Sylvia Plath long coveted, but never won), the Walt Whitman Award from the Louisiana State University Press, and the Bakeless.
Last year, arriving home to his condo in Lantana, he had a message on his answering machine. Louise Gluck had called. Gluck is the United States' poet laureate, which means little to a society that is generally indifferent to poetry, but among poets she is legendary.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company