Q & A: Spencer Reece
Why is this poem called “Gilgamesh”?
The poem is called “Gilgamesh” because that ancient Assyrian myth, which survives in fragments in Genesis, is the story of two men in love. It exists only in shadow in Genesis, as redactors took pieces from it but left the homosexual love story on the cutting room floor. I thought it high time the story be brought back. The idea of it has been with me for a long time, but it took two decades to find the right place for it. At first the basso profundo element of death resonated with me, as Enkidu dies in the myth, and twenty years ago was the high time of aids. What I am resonating with now is the love that was there in a relationship; I am also, unfortunately, cataloging the end of that relationship, as one of the men in the poem pursues his desires for immortality (another theme of the myth).
We saw an early—and very different—version of this poem that was written as a single, unbroken narrative. What made you decide to break it up into sections or “fragments”?
This poem went through many rewrites (and had many different titles), as those near me know and have had to endure! I am a slow worker. Unfortunately, sometimes it is right at the end that I see the possibility of enormous changes. This poem began as screenplay dialogue; then separate prose poems; then haibun, which combine prose and haiku; then one single free verse poem; then finally I remembered visiting the Yale Babylonian collection in Sterling Memorial Library last year and seeing how the actual Gilgamesh epic was carved into tiny clay cylinders and was in fragments. The fragmentary nature, I could see, quite clearly echoed the relationship being memorialized.
One can’t help but think of Elizabeth Bishop when reading this poem. The wry tone (“You wanted a younger man, between twenty and twenty-five. / You had always been honest.”); the understated pain (the last line!), the density and clarity of the details (those opening ducks), even the Florida landscape (“the state with the prettiest name,” as Bishop said): it all brings her poetry to mind. Can you say something about her influence on you and this poem?
I have always loved Elizabeth Bishop, it is true. She is one of the masters for my time on the planet. I could reread her letters until the cows come home. My passions for disclosure do not always seem in harmony with her silences, but I have loved her understatement nonetheless, and her painterly eye. There is nothing like it.
Florida speaks to poets in a curious way, I think. It is baroquely florid, humid, there is a slowness and heat one associates with poetry. I think I am saying goodbye to Florida in the poem, which saddens me a bit.
This poem is notably different from the current period style: it’s a first-person narrative; it’s “I” isn’t fractured or “destabilized”; it employs images to express and elicit affect; and it moves, despite being in fragments, very patiently and linearly toward its conclusion. Are you conscious of these things at all when writing, even if only to react against them?
No, I am not so conscious of what is being done in my time. I need the poems to be understandable to me, if that is what first person narrative means and being “linear.” I know Wallace Stevens champions obfuscation, but it does not seem to be what I am drawn to, although I love Stevens deeply; but, after all, wouldn’t you agree it is just as hard to write something clear as something obscure?
Memoir bores me. But in poetry, the autobiography becomes something else entirely, somehow selfless. To be “fractured” or “destabilized” are not personal goals, artistically or otherwise. I am unconventional but always trying to adhere to convention, at times more successfully than at others.
A striking element of the poem is the way that huge life events get no more emphasis than quick, visual impressions: “I sold my library, my piano. I boarded a train. / Seagulls diminished, gray specks, gray motes.” Why is this?
Why the human activities in this poem are given equal weight to the natural world was not a conscious thought prior to writing the poem. But certainly, to live in Florida is to be aware of the smallness of humankind in relation to nature. And in the places I love—Florida, Wyoming, Maine, Minnesota, the seascapes near the church I am serving in Westerly, Rhode Island—what I love is the vastness. I feel small in comparison, and in my smallness I hear God more clearly.
Could you explain this line: “Your Christ-kiss issued no more”? Why “Christ”?
Perhaps I am influenced by my time at seminary, and the moments of Christ’s intimacy are more present in my mind. We studied the Secret Gospel of Mark, which may very well be a hoax, but may also not be, which suggests Jesus had a secret one night stand with the Beloved Disciple. The ideas of Queer Theory, as proposed by writers such as Dale Martin and Riki Wilchins, make the seminarian aware that Christ may have been anything. He is beyond labels. Maybe we all are.
The poem deals with what occurs outside our given texts, for there is absence that is meaningful outside the text, as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault have elaborated. Sometimes I don’t know why I do certain things in a poem, and it is only years later that I realize what I was trying to do. To my mind, though, the idea of Christ kissing another, romantically, has been as submerged as the love affair in Gilgamesh.
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This poem originally appeared in the April 2010 issue of Poetry magazine