Spencer Reece

Home » Issue 86 » Spencer Reece

Spencer Reece

Letters from Spain

            for Eric Friesen

            En tierra de ciegos, el tuerto es rey.
            —Spanish proverb

Mis Primeros Días Aquí en Madrid

             I don’t want to make mistakes — but Lord
I make them, didn’t wear the right shoes
(black running shoes instead of dress shoes),
answered the phone wrong, welcomed wrong,
was told never to wear gloves in the church
even though we have no heat.
                                                    My Spanish
is delicate — I misunderstand liturgy: I bow when
we stand, I kneel when we sit, I sing when we pray.
This is not the Episcopal church as we know it:
Not one Lily Pulitzer shift in sight.
This phrase I recite: ¡Os pido que tengáis
paciencia con mi castellano! Sometimes
my Spanish syllables blow out my lips
and frighten the faithful in the front.
All my priest shirts bloom with sweat stains.
Word reached me from Christ Church, Westerly!
Natalie Lawton fills me in with each letter
she writes.

        Fall now, the ordination went well, although
hardly anyone came! A bicycle race cut off access
with its thousands of wheels—
we were surrounded by muscles in spandex.
The erotic contained as if that was a sign.

When I landed Aloysi collected me.
His name pronounced Al-oh-we-see. He talks quick.
His story I can´t track. Poor, imprisoned,
a soldier, a welder, he left a wife and child
in Cuba. He uses the word vergüenza.
Need to look that up. In Cuba injustice
was done to him. He told me Catholic priests
have sex. At least I think that´s what he said.
Gave me pause.
                              Curious, much is curious.

Algunas Semanas Después

             Aloysi speaks confidently of eternity,
he takes a microphone and drum machine
to the Metro where he seeks to convert.
He loves a woman in the church. Spaces
between his teeth, he said to me last week,
“Top Secret.” His joy pleases me. Faces with joy
please me, know what I mean?

             Every morning I drink my strong coffee
and look at this photo I framed of Natalie Lawton.
In it, she´s just about to put the red stole
on me for my deaconate ordination.
I linger in front of her as with a relic.
Before I enter the cathedral, I dust her off.
Madrid is dusty.
                                     How did her last note begin?

             “You have no idea how much your letters
cheer me up! I am alone a lot…” Natalie wrote
in a cursive no longer taught.
                                                          Much has gone:
The Palacio de Cibeles, our grand post office
is now a museum. The letter slots sealed.
No one goes there. The pen´s throat is sore.
Auden hated the typewriter because he believed
it ruined his poems, but he had no idea
what lay ahead. Thank God I have the letters
Natalie wrote —

             Oh Natalie in your pew, second on the right,
your fine white hair permed like a lamb´s coat…


             The jet leg was bad! You go and go
against time. When I first arrived I hugged
the Bishop! A big American hug. He told me Spaniards
did not hug when they first meet. It was awkward
as you might imagine. Many things the Bishop
attributes to Spaniards I find are attributed
solely to him. Still.

                                      My ways stand out.
Well, I am what I am… “and have not been called
in vain…” isn´t that what Paul says somewhere?
Saturday now. Aloysi and I must collect food
in our old van called a furgoneta. I´ll read
the Bible in Castilian and he´ll correct me.

             Today I recall how Natalie made me feel…
At the Shelter Harbor Inn she used her gift certificate.
Her son washed dishes in the back. She told me
she believed in me. Few talk like that.

             Last thing Natalie asked about was my work.
I´m the Bishop´s secretario, a keeper of secrets,
before me there were six or seven former ones
like Henry the 8th´s wives they came to bad ends.
I shuffle papers, check e-mail, write letters
(we still do), keep track of Ordinary Time
which is always shifting, recall appointments
(never on time), answer the door which gets stuck,
celebrate the mass, attendance is sparse, Spaniards
prefer movies, open and close the door for AA,
dust off all the Bishop’s whatchamajiggers.
recount and recount all the offering figures,
put the rent in hiding places, and on the dirty rug
I use the broken taped vacuum that fails to suck.


        It´s cold! I write with my coat on
and there´s no hot water in the sink. No snow.
Hasn´t snowed for years. When it does it sticks
to the statue of the Devil as a fallen angel. Spaniards
claim this is the only statue of the Devil
which is not true, but Spaniards say it´s true.
This city where poetry died. While Franco
closed our cathedral, Machado and his mother died
on a march. She watched her son die first.
He had a poem in his pocket. Hernández died
in prison. His eyes remained open. And Cernuda
left. Behind him a girl´s legs got blown off.
Lorca they killed because he was a maricón.

        All at once this country lost its voice.
Our cathedral shuttered forty years. Christmas
soon. I spread the faith best I can, in my ways,
but its slow. Not having toilet paper for guests
doesn´t help, the faithful lift what they can.
Maligned, odd, microscopic bishopric!
When I call British priests they don´t pick up.
Our “close” consists of rancid garbage and behind it,
old married gays in open relationships. My three rooms
— since you ask — are at the top; if you climb the stairs
the honeyed wood will creak like organ pedals.
There´s a locked library with names I can´t recall:
Athanasius, Apollinaris of something, the Montanists —
laughed at like us.
                                      I clean the place when I can.

Los Reyes

             When Spaniards speak fast I´m lost.
They call me a silly American when they think
I can´t hear. I hesitate to say it but I´m fairly sure
I found love with a man on an app named Manuel.
Nearly all the men there were named Manuel.
Was it Adam4Adam or Silverdaddies or Gaydar?
I´ll try not to sound sure about what´s unsure.
Lord he’s muscular and he hardly speaks English.

             Something sings slowly through the mildew.

             The Bishop has a fish and three small birds.
Every morning now he tenderly addresses them
among the plants he´s planted in rusted oil drums.
Often the birds get stolen. He looks sad then.
Only I see this. Maybe his elegant wife sees it.
We rarely see her, she´s busy. And more beautiful
than us. They have no children, only two Yorkies
named Honey and Sugar: a kind of future.
They wiggle in the sacristy like go-go dancers.
Spaniards whisper as if nothing had less hope
than to be childless and worship without the Pope.
Once the bishop cried but I don´t speak of this.

             On Calle Amor de Dios, old ladies in lipstick
and fur coats smoke and come up to my hips.
Last year I went to Memphis, saw Scott and Ardelle,
stood before the Loraine Motel.

             Out the window now: this city of dead Empire.

        The Bishop named his turtle Tortuga.
An austere choice but the Bishop is austere:
He wears old stained trousers and lives in the dark
to save on electric. Tortuga begins to search —
he wants touch the way we all want touch.
Who knows his age or sex?
                                                   The Bishop in a cape,
enters the office to light wax pots with a flourish.
With his ring we time when to press on the wax.
Then I send letters to the Archbishop, his Grace,
but I´m fairly sure they get misplaced.
                                                                     I possess
a peculiar dumb and unidentified loneliness.
In the front door, a peep-hole to view guests.
A Brit knocked and was ignored.

        My Bishop chortles. It´s not
dull. All day I am the matador, he the bull.
Every day Señor Gómez visits. Retired, mysterious,
four feet tall with his leather fedora, he sits
mute in my office for hours. Once he showed us
a picture from the 1940s, and there he was
with the same fedora! I move around him.
He might have been harmed under Franco.
Maybe he´s gay, someone once said so. Hard to tell
though, and who´s to say?


             My sink is a set of unworkable hoses.
The Bishop says it will be fixed, but I know
I will wait at least a year or more. A chandelier sits
on the floor for decades. Sometimes a chair,
broken, finds a use like the resting spot
for Señor Gómez. Waiting is the cathedral´s spell.
        On Facebook my second cousin posted
from Huntsville, Alabama — she´s a single mom,
her son biracial, almost twelve, He might be
our next Barack! Here he is in a baseball uniform,
ready to swing his bat.
My last relatives.
             My Bishop said we must
consecrate a former peluqueria. Someone stole
our car radio. The Bishop sang hymns for over an hour
as scenery blurred, his voice off-key. I listened
in the little car. He failed to recall the tune and words —
he sang in many high-pitched strong blanks.
It was excruciating, yet plaintive. Finally we arrived
at our new church, a basement strip club
in Navalcarnero!
                               I carried his miter and cope
in the shopping bag. His staff unfolds like those sticks
for the blind. When we were done we zoomed past
olive groves and trashed movie houses hollow
as the church. In the car the Bishop told me never
to fret. He invents words like
                                                    “Don´t be preoccupated.”

Fiesta de los Mártires de la Reforma Española

             You asked about the cathedral — it began late
after the Inquisition ended. One last Anglican
was burned and then Archbishop Plunkett
from Dublin gave the funds (the Irish knew slights).
But just as we got going Franco came.
He who harpooned whales on his yacht.
My Bishop shakes his head, things painful to say —
our priests shot in the head. Franco hated
the Protestant. An “extra-provincial jurisdiction” —
Britain and the States send no money unless I ask.
So I ask and ask and ask and routinely I hear:
“We have a Cathedral there?” So it goes —
no money no memory.
                                            My Bishop is bald —
even the sides thin, strands stipple the scalp.
Last year the Bishop lost the sight in one eye,
a stroke. We are both in our mid-fifties
and sigh over age´s merciless advance. I speak
to the good eye while the other floats. I lean
over him each day and place three sets of drops
into the jelly of the bad eye, often infected —
pus collects in the socket. He´s put on weight,
has gout. Yesterday, his cassock seams ripped.
The rip quacked like a fart — then we prayed.
Next week he’ll have six teeth pulled.
                                                                   He spoke
of San Isidro, Spain´s saint who took a siesta
while the angels did all his work. Explains much.

        Word came Natalie Lawton died —
fell outside CVS.


        A few months back we went down to Huelva
to clean our graveyard — condoms hung
from the saplings shooting up from the dead:
British fighter pilots mainly, and an American.
My Bishop chain-sawed brush and got welts
from the sap. I followed in a wheelbarrow.
Dressed in my clericals.
                                                Townsfolk laughed.
I think about my country and hope this reaches you —
as Lorca hoped his poems might reach us.
I think of Natalie´s son washing plates in the back.
I see those New Englanders brush crumbs away.
Sometimes I feel out of place but then I think
of Katherine Lee Bates who wrote our famous hymn,
was a missionary to Spain and a closeted lesbian.

Viggo Mortensen was in the post office.
Viggo´s older, adjusting to not being seen.
What comes after that?
                                            Spain seems kinder.
And me? What am I to send, with what import?
Natalie Lawton, the last of the letter writers, is gone.
I think of Natalie now with the Holy Spirit.
(We used to say Holy Ghost but now we don´t,
someone in the church thought it too Halloween).
Upstairs the chandelier sparkles on the floor
and the instructions for heat are painted over —
they look like Braille.
                                       Wait. Someone´s at the door.

El Año Siguente

             I thought I´d be in Madrid one year.
Then the Bishop asked me back. When I left
he actually hugged me. Let that be noted please.
I´d thought the whole thing was temporary
but then much is temporary, or so it feels.
The work found me and so it is right. The Bishop
and his wife got another Yorkie and named it Candy.
Manuel dumped me. I miss our walks under trees,
his biceps big, our strip-tease, and more — what?
The way he moved, maybe, his formal strut?
Like in flamenco. But he was not out. So that´s
             A missionary here disapproves of the gays
(even though his son is one), he told me he pays
to get it undone. Much goes unspoken, between
the crack when the bread is broken in a city thick
and passive with Catholics where few abide by texts
that dislike sex. The wives of the missionaries
all have IBS, long nights they lie on squeaky cots
twisting — their intestines knotted from stress.


             Yesterday I thought of Amy Lowell
here on my street called Calle de la Beneficencia
(odd cognate beneficence, almost, well, Episcopal—).
Lowell´s poems rarely get heard: what we recall
is her will that is responsible for bringing me here.
Mysterious art where little of it is custodial.
I´m far from home. Love, love. Love is best
when not my idea.

Muchos Años Después

        Natalie Lawton is buried in Rhode Island.
Is that the smallest state or is it Delaware?
As my dead mount and I read Ecclesiastes
drone on about how the dead are not handy,
I disagree — legions have left their mark on me.

        I think to write a long letter to someone but
then I forget or emails overtake the screen.
Letters started in the Book of Acts with Luke
who wrote to Theophilus in his dusty office,
much like mine, about how the spirit shook
from Cephas to the twelve to the five hundred.
Acts is the biography of the Holy Spirit.

             And even though the letter has died
I say to you what happens now matters.
We do not live in vain. I will not accept that.

        Just the other day in AA
a man said something cruel (a joke)
about homosexuals, mocking their walk, their talk.
Say that and new faggots won´t come back.
I stopped the meeting to my shock.
I was gutsy Jesus, no people-pleaser he,
appearing as he does in Dostoevsky.
Then back I trudged to our bus station of an office.
I sat with my Bishop under our broken clock.
I thought then to tell him I loved him
                                                                      but I did not.


        The other day the Bishop yelled at me,
I can’t say berating me was his goal, but —
we were in the back courtyard, by the cross
made from toilet tubes, shaded by the avocado tree.
I had finished preaching my homilía:
Los díez leprósos son sanados por el Espíritu Santo.
Only one leper says thanks. If Jesus thought
he was going to be adored he was mistaken.

             Love is an astonishing invisible business.

             I mentioned grace at the eleven o’clock:
el Espiritu Santo no eligé favoritos, la gracia
recae sobre las personas que son agradecídas
y los que son ingrátas. I made ten visits
to my window at nightfall. Taxies orbit
the Plaza de Colon.

             After our spat, the Bishop
produced some black and white fur mewling.
“Para ti,” he said, “He’s Adaluz.” Well, what could I

             I forgave the Bishop again.

Mi Último Día Aquí

             I hate the apartment all packed.
I write this beside bare walls
and nail holes. I grow obsolete among the blue tiles.
The vet gave me a pill to knock out the pup.
I gave away what I could. I said good-bye
to the bookstore, Desperate Literature,
named after something Bolaño wrote,
walked the streets of Chueca one last time,
pondered Manuel — “Gracias, mi amor.”

             In Plaza Santa Ana where Hemingway drank,
I stood before the statue of Lorca with his pájaro.
I thought to tell el Obispo, “Federico
fue el primer secretario para toda España!”
But I had run out of time for caprice.
Lorca said to me: “Pero ¿por que? ¿por qué
me atormentas? ¿Cómo no vienes conmigo,
si me amas, hasta donde yo te lleve? “

             In Jackson Heights, Queens —
Padre Antonio from the Republica Dominicana
was beloved, died of Covid — Would I consider it?

             Orphan of Spain, where will I go?

Mañana por la Mañana

             Here we go in the Spanish slowness —
clouds advance in their relentless armada —
Thorton Wilder once said it takes a year
to get a letter from Spain.
                                                       — And church?
Church goes on and will be late — Aloysi will flip
the switches for the circuit breakers;
the cathedral will be lit; the Metro will rumble;
the poor will line up for their bags of food; the masses
will pray and shout into their cell phones,
waiting for their hand-out; two old ladies
will sit and chit chat about God and Aloysi will preach,
the Bishop will sing and some new cleric
will hold out the money plate.
                                                          Leaving JFK
I forgot my copy of George Herbert
in my seat’s back pocket. Back I went through
                and he was still there.

Spencer Reece authored two prize-winning books of poetry, The Clerk´s Tale & The Road to Emmaus. He edited an anthology of poems, Counting Time Like People Count Stars: Poetry by the Girls of Our Little Roses, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. He founded the Unamuno Author Series in Madrid, Spain. He worked as a chaplain in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and was canon to the ordinary in Madrid, Spain. In 2020, he became priest-in-charge at St. Mark’s/San Marcos, Jackson Heights, Queens, New York City, New York.