The Fifth Commandment

by Spencer Reece

Waiting with an unfinished, finished look
behind honeysuckles that crown Old Saybrook,
she is reading Vita Sackville-West,
he has food on his moth-eaten sweater vest.
Here’s the Oriental rug, still steeped in piss
from their bulldog who barked like an activist.
She seems happy, reigning with creams you FedExed,
rubbing his scalp, patched with scabby flecks
(as his squamous-cell carcinomas sprout,
the local dermatologist cuts them out
or frosts the growths with liquid nitrogen).
Tonight they talk of their last vegetable garden,
count out their pills in chipped cereal bowls
(you know the ones), check their sugar levels,
bicker over books misplaced, tchotchkes
lost, their tongues like well-used church keys.
Brother, last night half the garden nearly froze.
The dash between their dates is nearly closed.

Notes on the Poem

The numbering varies in some faiths, but in the context of Spencer Reece's poem "The Fifth Commandment", let us assume he's referring to the suggestion that one should "Honour thy father and thy mother." How does the narrator of this selection from Reece's 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted "The Road to Emmaus" venerate mater and pater? Oh, you'll be charmed at how he does it. There are myriad delights in this rueful and bittersweet - but mostly sweet - setting. The poem sketches its characters vividly, from the mother's reading material (Vita Sackville-West) and palliative enthusiasm to the state of the father's clothing and skin - unpleasant on one hand, portending illness and vulnerability on the other. Even the long-gone family pet still has a strong presence (ahem) ... A true pleasure in this poem, which seems to flavour the parents' eccentricities with whimsy, are the constant and clever half rhymes; "piss / activist", "nitrogen / garden" and especially "tchotkes / church keys" provoke smiles as you read them. The narrator is honouring his father and his mother as he indulges them and tweaks at their quirky habits and foibles. The last line of the poem is simultaneously gentle and abrupt, and has an effect similar to that of the last line of Michael Longley's "Boat", which we examined last week. It's amazing how dates wield such power and remind us so forcefully of our mortality.

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