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"Much life has gone into the making of this art, much patient craft." Louise Glück, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2020

An exquisite memoir of a life saved by poetry.

The Secret Gospel of Mark is a powerful dynamo of a story that delicately weaves the author's experiences with an appreciation for seven great literary touchstones: Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, James Merrill, Mark Strand, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In speaking to the beauty these poets' works inspire in him, Reece finds the beauty of his own life's journey, a path that runs from coming of age as a gay teenager in the 1980s, Yale, alcoholism, a long stint as a Brooks Brothers salesman, Harvard Divinity School, and leads finally to hard-won success as a poet, reconciliation with his family, and the fulfillment of finding his life's work as an Episcopal priest. Reece's writing approaches the truth and beauty of the writers who have influenced him; elliptical and direct, always beautifully rendered.

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“Much life has gone into the making of this art, much patient craft.”

“This is a portrait of the artist, narrated by a priest and a poet and a gay man with tenderness and searing honesty. Spencer Reece weaves the poetry he loves into how he has lived, the poetry as solace and relief, as confirmation and rescue, as redemption.”

“Spencer Reece’s The Secret Gospel of Mark is 'a memoir-breviary, a poetry devotional' for our time, in the company of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain. With extraordinary candor, Reece discloses the whole of his life, body and soul, as poet and priest, brother and son. It is an extraordinary journey of sexual and spiritual awakening, in the company of poets from beginning to end. A profound and necessary work, luminous and full of grace.

“Spencer Reece brings into sharp focus a life of authentic despair and ultimate redemption. His descriptions are bracing, honest, often lyrical, and sometimes violent, and they are also deeply psychologically penetrating, characterized by hard-won insight and profound revelation. This is a bildungsroman of gay self-acceptance as the acceptance of others has inflected it; it is a book about poetry that is itself a compilation of prose poems; it is a tender but unforgivingly clear-sighted exposition of Christian faith.”

“A poet recounts his arduous search for authenticity... In a resonant, deeply moving memoir, award-winning poet Reece (b. 1963) reflects on love, spirituality, family, and his torments over his sexual identity... A beautifully written, engrossing narrative.”

“Reece is a poet first, and poetry’s economy coupled with verbal daring characterizes his prose memoir made up of far shorter chapters—139 of them—than is usual in its genre. Each presenting a particular situation, they proceed chronologically, shifting in tone and subject, often quite abruptly. Chapters on extreme homosexual guilt or ruinous drinking are chockablock with analyses of salvific poems by Reece’s masters—Plath, Bishop, George Herbert, Merrill, Dickinson, Hopkins, Strand—and clipped accounts of moving from place to place, job to job, and at last from reading to reading after his prize-winning first collection, The Clerk’s Tale (2004), was published when he was 41 (Bishop published late, too, he soothes himself). He’d quit booze, accepted being gay, and held a long term job with Brooks Brothers. Then he revived a youthful clerical calling and, upon ordination, went to Madrid’s tiny Anglican diocese. Indelible characters include his parents, his brother, a friend and a cousin both killed by homophobia, AA sponsors and counselors, poetic mentors, fellow workers, and his sexually incompatible gay partner. Reece's testimony is heart-wrenching yet triumphantly reassuring about spiritual resiliency and the consolation that is in poetry.”

“Spencer Reece’s memoir, The Secret Gospel of Mark, feels like what it is—a product of remarkable time and care.”

“A powerful dynamo of a story that delicately weaves the author's experiences with an appreciation for seven great literary touchstones: Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, James Merrill, Mark Strand, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.”

blog — March 16

People said: “I saw you.” And I wondered what they saw.

An exclusive excerpt from The Secret Gospel of Mark: A Poet's Memoir by Specer Reece, out March 16, 2021 from Seven Stories Press.

The college psychologist was from Argentina, in his midfifties, and as dashingly handsome as a bullfighter. He had a fairly heavy accent and mispronounced words and forgot others, which, considering our topic of conversation, added a heightened level of comedy to our sessions. I sensed that he wasn’t understanding everything I was saying. We sat in a little room in the infirmary, mostly taken up with his bicycle and various bicycle parts.

My heart sank about one minute into our first meeting when I realized I wasn’t going to say the word “gay” or “homosexual” and neither was he. There was no book in his office resembling anything that might be helpful. We were going to pretend my homosexuality didn’t exist.

Our conversation was laughably leaden. We were like two very bad actors in a college play.

“How you?” he said.

“Fine,” I responded, my body language robotic.

“Your mother had spoken to me and said you try to attempt suicide.”

“Yes.”

“How are you now?”

“Fine.”

“Do you want to commit suicide now?”

“No.”

“Good.”

This was the caveman-like level of our communication. The sessions were useless.

In a year or two everyone would start dying of AIDS. But we didn’t know that in his office. What we knew was silence, elaborate and subtle and vast. What I knew was an avalanche of shame. He was married to one of the tenured professors on the psychology faculty. I suspected this job had been given to her handsome husband as a compensation: something to keep him busy between his bicycle races.

Instead of curing my homosexuality our sessions provoked it. I found myself drawn to his dark skin, deep black eyes, and muscular build—especially the lower half of his body, those thighs and buttocks tightly encased in his pants as if with shrink wrap. I had to repress the attraction every time I looked at him. This wasn’t how The Bell Jar had gone. There, Esther Greenwood, Sylvia Plath’s stand-in, had returned to Smith after her dramatic suicide attempt, triumphantly. In her real life Plath resurrected herself nicely, galvanized to embrace a new life in college with her dyed-blond pageboy bob. They wrote her up in the newspapers. My suicide attempt had generated no star treatment. I failed my classes first term. To the college I was an embarrassment. I was going backwards. Drinking called me. The psychologist kept telling me to enjoy my life. His hands were full of grease and chains. He had started working on his bicycle during our sessions, and as he worked he would hardly look at me. Something Bishop once wrote to her physician, Anny Baumann, began to haunt me: “I feel some sort of cycle settling in.” So it was going with me, a cycle of drinking to get through the days. After our sessions I would go back to my room and pour myself a glass of wine to blot out the unspoken homosexuality.

James Merrill said Bishop was always impersonating an ordinary woman. Her years were spent carrying out those impersonations: Vassar girl, a woman smiling with perfectly manicured nails, then wrapped in furs like a Scarsdale matron, later a woman with blue eye shadow in a light-blue pantsuit. I too was eager to be somebody who could pass. I was now doing my best to curb my theatrical gestures. Intellectually I constructed a genuine interest in girls. Sometimes it worked. When it did not, which happened more often, I wanted to disappear.

I told my parents I was better. They believed me. I believed me. I stopped seeing the psychologist soon after we started our sessions, having decided the answer to my problem lay in drink rather than therapy. He zoomed around the campus on his bike. I repressed my fantasies about the two of us naked. I drank more. I found myself unable to make it into the class- room. I was going down some dark tunnel. I tried to make it to the literary magazine meetings, smelling like a brewery. I vaguely wondered if Nick might be gay. Neither of us dared bring that to utterance back then. I fumbled into romances with women where they became nurses instead of lovers.

In a moment of sobriety in the dining hall at Coles Tower, having a coffee with Nick and talking about poems, he said he had heard someone say Wesleyan was the most liberal of the schools in the Northeast. His eyebrows arched and he looked out the window. If I changed schools, I might change.

~

My junior and senior years were spent at Wesleyan. My grandmother was not far in Hartford. I avoided calling her. I rented a small room in a wooden clapboard house with three other students, across from a liquor store called Sunshine Farms.

Every night I walked through the door of Sunshine Farms and the owner said “Hello” a little too knowingly.

“I will have four bottles of the white wine,” I said, with the same guilt I felt when I shoplifted Playgirl.

These wine bottles were Italian, had a colorful label on them like lovely Florentine stationery: green and rose squiggles, with some gold strewn throughout. When my housemate Laura moved in at the beginning of the year, her parents had bought her one of these bottles to celebrate. Two or three nights in, I drank everything in the house, including Laura’s bottle. The next morning I left her a note: “Dear Laura, I am so sorry for drinking the bottle that your parents gave you. As soon as Sunshine Farms opens I will replace it.” And I did.

Laura never drank that bottle. I did. Every night. A month later, I stopped writing her notes and bought a case of bottles. I drank the case. I replaced Laura’s bottle over one hundred times.

I had a girlfriend. Maybe I could add to that heterosexuality and leave my parents pleased, or so I hoped. K. and I met at a party in the dark tunnels that connected the dormitories at Wesleyan. She was kind and smart, the two qualities I love. I drank my way through the sex with her. I prayed to something for the power to do this. I enjoyed it. I was attracted to her. I figured the drinking would subdue my brain packed full of gay desire.

K. studied classics and looked like Patti Smith. She translated Catullus until dawn. She was willowy with smudged mascara that gave her a raccoon look. Night after night in her bed we explored, aided by my inebriation. The record needle skipped on a song by the British band The The, singing, “This is the day your life will surely change.” In a dirty crumbling student house with the paint coming off the ceiling—This is the dayI drank enough to kill an ox.

One morning I woke in K.’s bed blinded. She took me to the hospital. Somehow in my drinking I had ripped my corneas. “Have you been drinking?” the doctor asked. I said, “No, not much,” yet I could smell the acrid tang of alcohol pushing through my pores.

After a week of healing, my eyesight restored, I made it to the library. I went to the room where they kept the records and played the voice of Robert Lowell, Bishop’s best literary friend. Lowell read “Skunk Hour,” which he dedicated to her. I grimaced when he got to the part about the fairy decorator, spoken in his best high-brow Boston Brahmin accent:

And now our fairy decorator brightens his shop for fall; his fishnet’s filled with orange cork, orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl; there is no money in his work, he’d rather marry.

This was all I saw for a future: hairdressers, florists, maybe real estate agents—all court-jester versions of Dom DeLuise. Lowell’s no-money pathetic effeminate sales clerk: that, I did not want to become.

~

Most evenings I was carried out of parties and thrown into bushes. I fell down on the dance floor to the tune of the Go-Go’s singing brightly or The Smiths singing one of their sarcastic dirges. Then I fell down a set of stairs.

People told me not to call them back. People stopped inviting me to parties. People said: “I saw you.” And I wondered what they saw. “I have a red light that goes on and tells me to stop,” my mother told me over the telephone, talking about the drinking. Red light. Where was my red light? Never had such a light. Only green. I did not mention anything to my mother about girlfriends or the poems I scribbled. The list of subjects we did not discuss lengthened. What had happened to us?

One night I drank all Laura’s wine bottles and suddenly I was in the street in front of Sunshine Farms. My blue terry-cloth bathrobe was half-off, mud on my naked body. I’d dyed my hair white like Billy Idol. Mascara dripped from my eyes. A cigarette in hand, hate of me coursed through every vein. I exploded out in my drunkenness with an aggressive flamboyance, more auto-da-fé than drag queen. I dared anyone to stop me. My tongue grew vicious. I was Lear’s fool. I ran pell-mell into the audience.

“We are going to have to take you in. This is the tenth time the neighbors complained about the noise here,” said the policeman.

Crapulous thing, I said something unintelligible.

“Listen, the neighbors have called again, we receive three calls a week from them.”

A record skipped from the bedroom above—Marianne Faithfull singing, “What are you takin’ for beauty’s sake?”

The officer gave me a fine and retreated. I’d drunk my way through the dark night. Now dawn tinted every little thing. Silverware shone. Telephones gleamed. Mirrors glinted. Windows flashed. The sun rose. I belonged nowhere. The house in front of me looked forlorn. I trudged up the stairs. My roommates woke to their studies. I recalled the night in pieces: naked, the yellow Sunshine Farms sign, the terrible thought that I would need to apologize to Laura again, replace her bottles, and what on earth was it I’d said? K., who had been keeping pace with my drinking and managing to keep her classics grades high, began to step back into the shadows. I was alone in my bedroom. Lawn mowers revved. Paperboys threw papers onto doorsteps. Birds sang. I had a set of crossed-out poems next to the typewriter. How would I enter this world?

"Much life has gone into the making of this art, much patient craft." —Louise Glück, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2020

An exquisite memoir of a life saved by poetry.

The Secret Gospel of Mark is a powerful dynamo of a story that delicately weaves the author's experiences with an appreciation for seven great literary touchstones: Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, James Merrill, Mark Strand, George Herbert, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In speaking to the beauty these poets' works inspire in him, Reece finds the beauty of his own life's journey, a path that runs from coming of age as a gay teenager in the 1980s, Yale, alcoholism, a long stint as a Brooks Brothers salesman, Harvard Divinity School, and leads finally to hard-won success as a poet, reconciliation with his family, and the fulfillment of finding his life's work as an Episcopal priest. Reece's writing approaches the truth and beauty of the writers who have influenced him; elliptical and direct, always beautifully rendered.

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Spencer Reece's first published book of poetry, The Clerk's Tale, was selected from the slush pile by Louise Glück as the winner of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference Bakeless Prize and published by Houghton Mifflin in 2004. The titular poem was adapted into a short film by James Franco in 2010. Reece is also the author of the poetry collection The Road to Emmaus, published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in 2014, a finalist for the Griffin Prize and longlisted for the National Book Award. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. For several years he lived in Madrid, where he was the national secretary to the Episcopal bishop of Spain. He currently lives in Old Lyme, Connecticut.