Unpious Pilgrim
George Spencer
Fly by Night Press
ISBN: 978-1-930083-21-9

Reviewer: Alice Osborn


          A pilgrimage is about purpose, purity, and destination, but not necessarily in George Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim. Instead, Spencer takes his reader on a pilgrimage through art both high ("Mona Lisa") and low ("Where’s Waldo"), also offering the reader a total immersion in the messy, frustrating art of creating poetry. Unpious Pilgrim is the mash-up, surreal journey of fictional and historical figures, along with commentary on paintings and painters, punctuated by an ongoing preoccupation with the muse. Spencer is quirky, passionate, and playful as he makes the most of his visual arts background. Spencer’s metaphorical connections move to his own rhythm and require a careful read devoid of distraction. To set the tone, he introduces each section with quotations ranging from the Boy Scout Oath to an excerpt from Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler.

          The School of Ashbery flies high in Spencer’s work, as does the prose poem, both of which rail against conventionality. Because Spencer’s prose poems use exacting language and often pose questions, the reader feels the speaker’s eyes directly on her, almost as if waiting for an answer. The strongest prose poems in this collection opine and then respond in a circuitous way that refers back to the original question. For instance, in “Seasons” Spencer uses the months and seasons to illustrate the abstract concepts of time and hope through unexpected metaphor.
    
Summer has its opinions and we must listen.
Which side of the rock is the moss on? Is this a
legitimate question? Is it just a fond hope? Fond is as
fond does. August is sticky. The corn moans. That’s
what cicadas do. Now we have cell phones and
minutes. Hours and days. Hours are now. We are sure
tomorrow is another day. May is a merry month.
April, a haughty princess. June is for foolish brides.
Fall is your father. Winter’s where he’s buried. Perhaps
time means something. What is something? A key, a
code, a chain. A watch.

          In “Trope,” he takes the metaphor a step further by creating a conceit about metaphors.

I like a metaphor except when it takes over and
all of a sudden it’s a ten-wheeler truck dead-
heading down the highway, all its license plates
screaming: I’ve been there. And it decides
which truck stop has the best apple pie and
glory hole. Gasses up. And off into the rising
sun. 18 speeds w/sleeper.

          Readers can peer into Spencer’s mind, following poetic leaps and odd connections that still make sense. In “Mona Lisa,” for example, Spencer starts off with solipsism (“things become smaller and manageable. The/ 5 senses and then a little intuition that sensitive souls/ have are all one needs to operate in this world.”), sidles up to death, and then concludes with Mona Lisa’s smile. A proponent of solipsism believes that her own mind is real, but that other people may not exist. Both poetry and solipsism take use of the senses and imagination as foundational to the experience of a reality. In the case of a poet’s death, her poetry lives on; in the case of a solipsist’s death, she lives on since her life was imaginary anyway and death can only come to others.  

                  ...So I’m really confused, really almost
paralyzed what with the Mona Lisa being both a thing
of beauty and a memento mori sitting there in the
Louvre right where you can’t miss her…

                                                                 …She’s
been around a long time and she’s learned a thing or
two including a winning smile will get you places.

          Spencer includes many poems about poetic forms, including the villanelle and the sonnet, all of which have serious titles, all of which are also infused with Spencer’s quirky, offbeat humor, as in “Inventing Poetry” (below).

Like Petrarch dreaming up his little love song, the sonnet,
to see if he could get Laura under the duck feather duvet
where they could do the rhyming couplet.

          Spencer also makes fun of poets coming up with random lines, as if they are using a prose poem machine, also taking jabs at the prose poem itself with its heightened language and nontraditional style:

Written by a Prose Poem Machine

Luckily most churches have three aisles but limited seating
with good sight lines. Cathedrals are infinity. Yet some seats
are better than others. More like a 5-star hotel. You can slip in
and out undetected like a well-planned adultery and the flower
shop is the confessional. Penance…six Hail Marys:
half dozen red roses and who’s the wiser.

          In his ekphrastic poems, Spencer doesn’t just address the particular art, he also deepens the reader’s level of understanding. “Madame Cezanne,” for example, immediately conjures the image of the controversial Manet painting, “Le Déjeuner Sur L'herbe,” primarily as a result of the allusion to still life and nudes with clothed men.

                                  …It’s muscular and it ripples but as it approaches
the trees it appears to have odd things in it, to have scum covering it
that is the colors of Munch. I don’t see any Matisse or Boucher or any
Fragonard putti and when it’s all looked at through a viewfinder
everything’s in the right places and it’s obvious that Raphael could
have composed this scene. It all fits into a triangle, the strongest
compositional unit, almost impossible to crush.

          This collection will appeal to those readers who enjoy the challenge of odd pairings and who have a palate for the abstract world of the New York School. Spencer frequently alludes to others’ work, and the reader may grow disengaged without at least a basic familiarity with the references. But by the end of the book, if the reader takes her time, she may find deep appreciation, impacted by Spencer’s sticky truths; consider, for example, the following gem: “Like I say you/ can never be too careful of your health. You have it/ only once. Twice at the most.”


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