Poetry at Berkeley Center: a review

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M. Div.

In the center of St. Luke’s Chapel at the Berkeley Center, where every seat was occupied and a number of attendants sat crouched on the floor, stood Yale Divinity School poets Spencer Reece and Nate Klug, along with Reece’s friend, the esteemed poet Marie Howe. Given the national renown—one might even say, at least within the literary world, the national fame—of Reece and Howe, and the up-and-coming promise of Klug, it is safe to say that witnessing a poetry reading by these three within the intimate, sacred space of the chapel was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The April 7 event grew out of a suggestion to Reece by Peter Hawkins, YDS and Institute of Sacred Music professor of religion and literature, that Reece should arrange a poetry reading before graduating in May. With the support of ISM, Berkeley Divinity School, and the Student Book Supply, Reece orchestrated the event and extended invitations to Howe and Klug.

Nate Klug was first to take the floor. Klug is not your average 25-year-old poet. As a recipient of last year’s highly coveted Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship—for which one must be under 31 years old to qualify—Klug has proven himself to be one of the most elite young poets in the country. He opened the night with an engaging poem about a baseball game he happened upon while wandering around a town in Massachusetts one day. The ensuing poems he read dealt with his faith, his carnivalesque and eerie experience during one Fourth of July, and his ruminations about becoming a married man this summer (his fiancé was in the audience). Fittingly, as the April rain pattered against the window, he closed with a poem entitled ‘Errand,’ a hymn to spring.

Visiting from New York City, where she serves on the faculties of Sarah Lawrence College and New York University, Marie Howe was second to read. Like Reece, she is a recipient of National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim fellowships.  With complete command of the audience’s attention, and with masterful articulation, Howe read a number of poems she had written in the voice of the Virgin Mary. These religiously themed poems seemed particularly poignant, recited in a chapel with icons above and divinity students gazing up from below.  She finished reading with her famous poem “The Gate.”

The last to read was the poet of the hour: Spencer Reece. Reece was right at home at the reading—literally. Berkeley Center provides housing for five BDS students, and Reece was among them this term.  He opened with a sonnet, which is atypical for Reece, whose normative form is a sort of free-verse prose. Reece dedicated the sonnet to a close friend he had know who died when he and Reece were still very young men. With tears welling up in his eyes, Reece recalled how, prior to the young man’s death, he was sure the young man would be a famous poet someday.  Given that the young man also intended to be a priest, it was hard to resist the temptation to think that Reece, now a nationally acclaimed poet and soon-to-be ordained Episcopal priest, was not in some way embodying the spirit of his deceased friend.

Reece’s second poem was even more intimate than his first. He read a poem about the man in the audience sitting in the second row to his left: his father. The poem, called “The Manhattan Project,” tenderly recalled his father’s childhood, which was spent on one of the actual sites of the Manhattan Project (Reece’s grandfather was among the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb.). The poem, spanning generations, was haunting and beautiful, and Reece and his father were not the only ones holding back tears at the end of the recitation.

The closing poem of the evening was one that Reece had never before read in public. It is a poem about Reece’s experience living at Berkeley Center—including a reference to the very chapel the audience was in—attending Yale Divinity School, and his past three years spent in New Haven at-large. Reece ended the poem beautifully ruminating on how he has modeled himself after another “single, effeminate” man who, two millennia ago, set off to spread the good news of God’s love throughout the world.

Posted: 05/02/2011