The Heart’s Docks Staked Deeper: Roads by Joseph Spece

by The Editors

Reading Roads, by Joseph Spece, is not unlike walking through the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature in Paris. That brilliant museum tracks the use of animals through Western art, starting with the boar to the stag to the dog to the bear and beyond. The rooms and hallways are haunted by taxidermied animals, some standing casually in a corner; a wolf that simply wandered into a satin drawing room. Spece brings the wolf into his drawing room. A “surfeit of huntsman have blighted the wood./ The hare must manage the hound, and quick.”

Spece has command of, and indulges in, a very tidy, elegant line. He’s like an classically trained draftsman newly turned to art; the sheer skill is apparent, but his artistic vision is running the show. In “Elegy,” details of the father’s body & the son’s reverence paint an intimate scene:

The sudden rise of his abdomen,

the longing breath, every sigh
is his matter and mine.

Never have his knees
seemed so handsome. […]

First, the image of the lungs filling with air; we think of the poetic line as a single breath. Read the line aloud and you must fill your lungs to do so. Read it silently to yourself and the whisper of that silence still evokes breath. Spece moves from an esoteric image to one of knees protruding from a hospital bed, but not by building an explicit image. Rather, the narrator’s reaction to these knees, an aftereffect of the image imbued with tenderness. Spece has complete control over the pace and sound of details as they unfurl (“Drops scuttle in his lungs”) to arrive at a bodily detail, a demure moment.

His fingers are like the lobes
of a rose: velvet, a little cool,

unexpectedly pliant. 
It is afternoon now.

Spece’s deft choice to end an elegy with a vague space of the day, not laden with meaning as “noon” or “evening” might be, proves his ear and wit.

Just as the rooms of La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature do, Spece is looking forever into the magical. He writes “The farther into Greenery/ The closer Home it felt––”.

In that Greenery we find not only the objects of magic, myth, and the ancients, (the hunstman or Pygmalion or Antigone), but the everyday observed from a unique vantage point. Dinner parties glow with affect and humor:

[…] You had little to ask
of that aplomb at supper; the lovely
neck; she was nearly attended by song.

She had a way of naming
color––always aubergine, always
maize or canary over corollary hues. 
Some called it “taste.”

Ekphrastic poems occur throughout the book, always building on the referenced piece of art, changing it subtly to reveal something new. In “The Mouths of St. Teresa,” Spece captures Bernini’s sculpture so accurately, that anyone who has seen it in person must surely be taken back to the church, the breathing marble, its deep glow: 
p(. The mouth in the eye
is bound in awe’s vices.

The tongue of it
constricts a dove
but lovingly.

The poem is Eight Ways of Looking at a Mouth. It gapes, it drools. The mouth is wet, “Its throat glowing/ like gore in torchlight.” The poem weaves through fantastic images, stretched grammar and lands: 
p(. The mouth come home is sudden
took of teeth.

Such capture is rapture’s end.

What was soft is now menacing, full of teeth, somehow taken by them or has taken them up itself. Has the mouth been captured or the teeth? Either way, the rapture is over, Theresa has had her vision.

In Spece, we are shown how the enchanting bewitches a mind. He names the “vital mind” in his poem “Memory of Ipanema” and this phrase seems key. “Vital” recalls something full of energy, a mind that is never willing to rest, never stops questioning, thinking, dreaming. Spece’s “mind” seems closer to the German word geist, sometimes translated as “mind,” sometimes as “spirit.” Holding those two essences of a person in tandem is what Spece does so well.

The “vital mind” puts Spece in conversation with Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, among others. It also pushes us to consider the potential lyricism of the video game Resident Evil. Spece has three “Soldiery” poems in which he takes either the voice of Sheva Alomar or of Chris Redfield, characters that together fight zombies. Here is Spece’s “vital mind”: he doesn’t only see these characters and imagine their relationship in a deeper narrative than perhaps the video game creators have supplied, he does so in a pitch of poetry we rarely get to read from a contemporary poet. For example, in “Soldiery: Wetlands”:

We shared a moment of silence
before directives

called us to distant holds across the fen.
When next I drew my knife

with back to his, endurance on us again,
I felt heart’s docks staked deeper.

The double spondee (“heart’s docks staked deep”) of the final line requires an endurance of its own making the final unstressed syllable, “er,” fall so that we, too, are deeper. And in “Soldiery: Meeting at Night,” Spece begins with Redfield imagining Sheva undressing, surely a common fantasy of Resident Evil players, but moves Refield’s imagination past the sensual to the stoic and tender:

When once again
I find solace in the rubrics
Of Ought and the rye
That follows

Spece’s “ought” is both probable (One minute ought to be enough.) and correct (I ought to have said I’m sorry.). It’s also the “ought” of Dickinson (“Of Ground, or Air, or Ought––”). The poem manages to marry romance, persona and lyric concisely, ending “The Possible remains/ The sure and urgent salve between us.”

The real gift of Roads is a window into a world where the metaphysical resides, an augury of a parallel poetic. Joseph Spece leads us into the wood and we would follow.

Roads, Joseph Spece
Cherry Grove Collections, 2013