Unpious Pilgrim Poems by George Spencer
Reviewed by Mary Wise
We are all on a journey – through life – through ourselves – through the things and the ones we love. To that end, we are all pilgrims searching for that “holy land” so that we can say, “yes! We’ve arrived! We now know, and we can rest.” George Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim, charts a journey toward that exact place. Resembling a “how to” book on one level and a personal travel log on another, Spencer’s poetry develops an often ironic narrative of what one needs to know or may experience on one’s far-reaching journey toward the self. His sometimes humorous, sometimes harsh and unrelenting treatment of subjects ranging from writing to murder to art and religion develops a far-reaching message about the innate human struggle with duality and the ensuing desperate search for “how-to” be.
To guide us through our journey, he sections the book into six areas of inquiry one would explore when making a pilgrimage: Planning the Trip, Things to be Learned, Travel Advisory, Forms and Other Detours, People I have Met and Places Visited, and The End in Sight. Each collection is a richly developed guide through our searching, which locks these poems together as a solid work of art. As such, it is not merely a collection of poetry - this book is itself a poem. The best collections are strategically organized and contain poems that work seamlessly together - unfolding gently, pulling us in and making us look at our deepest selves. We come away knowing more, having a greater sense of reality. And as a result, we look at the world differently. George Spencer’s work is no exception. He is a masterful teacher who has developed his unmistakably unique voice.
He pulls us through each angle of ourselves, holding up a mirror and forcing us to look into our own faces and see our own duality. We become the Unpious Pilgrim through his systematic breakdown of our piety. He challenges our notions of what we believe is real by juxtaposing them with seemingly opposing subjects and schemas. In becoming Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim, our expectations of what is right and true, our notion of a solid singular reality, shift dramatically.
The very first poem in this collection, “Love Song,” introduces the crux of Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim with the simple line: “We must be happy with what it is.” This refers to not only the destination, but also the path we take along the way. He further emphasizes this with the previous lines where he says that “maps” are “Interesting because they are usually wrong. / More imagination than coordinates.” In that little nugget lies the entire truth of it: the duality of expectation and reality, of journey and destination, of cause and effect and the almost irrelevant connections they have to one another. This ideology is what I found most intriguing about this collection.
Once handing us this “map” and asking us to “Love” it, he pulls us deeper into our journey, unraveling each element of our beliefs and then dropping us into his experience.
Almost indigestible, this journey becomes part of the reader, who will find herself sifting through the books reverberations long after the pages have gone. Using various forms, from the experimental Meaning What? to his prosaic On the Bus to his formal Valentine’s Day Villanelle, his work layers images, time, and space, so the reader feels the weight of immersion from multiple angles inside the journey. It is a book of reaching and of finding. He takes us into thickly layered, seemingly disjointed metaphors leaving the reader heavy and almost overwhelmed at times –as one might feel when searching for the correct path to take on one’s journey. This excerpt from Writer’s Block is a perfect example.
Once the devil was young and playful. The sea was high and happy.
Now the house is full of plastic furniture and cheap paintings. And
window dressings. Horn-tooting, and other outrages. So what to do?
His use of prose furthers the weight of these pieces, visually and through the breath that’s needed to pull through the lines. Without relying on enjambment and emphasis through line breaks, he crafts a tension where each element is equally weighted; the reader is not focusing on one element having more power than another within the poem. Everything, all at once, must be shouldered. The reader carries this overwhelming weight until, as a sort of pause for the Pilgrim (the reader), he insert a question. Here, we breathe – finally a break, to rest, to think, and perhaps most importantly, to question along with Spencer. “So what to do?” These quiet moments within the poetry string us through and lighten our load.
These prose poems are woven between a wide variety of other forms. The result is a rollercoaster of tension and release that one might feel on a pilgrimage. One of my favorite poems in this collection is an informal piece of one stanza situated in the first half of Travel Advisory: Genus. It begins with an immediate duality, “Banana is of the genus musa.” It sounds serious and scientific, but in choosing the word “Banana” he introduces the dichotomy. The serious line is immediately almost humorous, as the connotation of “Banana” cannot be overlooked. The contrast builds on numerous levels within the poem.
Upon first glance, my eyes read Genius as the title, and so as I went on, my eyes continued to trick me within the text. In addition, the duality with which the lines dance resonates strongly. It again unwraps the book’s premise from yet another angle with such a soft and strategic hand that I can’t help but read it over and over. This, here, is Unpious and searching and accepting and on many levels hilarious. It is a tiny snapshot of the journey and the arrival. We begin in a serious place, swirl through – groping at almost anything – and finally arrive at a seemingly disconnected place, proving once again that the journey does not equal the destination, “Genus has nothing to do with Genius.” Where we began, what we came from, has nothing to do with where we end up or what we can accomplish.
Like Dick’s Frozen Banana
is a Website that shows
you how to write plays.
I’m gong to write a play.
While humor is a strong thread throughout this book, not all of Spencer’s work leans to the light side of subject matter. In the formal poem, Baghdad Boxing Sonnet, the juxtaposition of a boxing match with the subjects of murder, racism, and classism, develops a similar dichotomy. This peculiar pairing weights the struggle and draws the reader into the idea that everything, even the worst, is at some level disconnected from its journey. Because this is hard to stomach, we innately want to fight against that notion. But Spencer’s ironic treatment questions us, turns the mirror toward us, and begs us to see ourselves, see how we see and don’t see what’s behind the horrors like these, and ultimately what’s behind all action – the journey that almost blindly builds to the point where
What a night, rocked the odds, prime time slaughter.
Commish runs for cover, leaving instead
black mothers to mourn. To white ears horror’s mute;
dark boy’s blood’s cheap like piss an’ rain water.
Throughout this book, Spencer uses such sharp imagery to cut us deeply. As a result we experience the poems as events. Here we come away with the sense that we are suddenly dripping something dirty and cheap. We feel almost shameful, as though we took part in this scene. These moments, these angles of view, where Spencer forces us to look at the many facets of our own duality, our own truth, twist our once solid reality into something even more real: something un-solid, something unsure, something Unpious.
George Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim is wrought with humor, irony and irreverence. He takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions as we explore the realities of life and of ourselves from every angle. As a result we experience a span of emotions ranging from horror and shame to happiness and intrigue. We become the Unpious Pilgrim and in that becoming, Spencer teaches us what it means to journey through life, through love, and through the self. This is a beautifully written must-read book for all.