Alice Willington reviews
The Pilgrim’s Trail
by Frances Spurrier
The Pilgrim’s Trail is a short collection of 49 poems. Like the pamphlet form, it has benefitted from distillation; each poem here has sufficient weight and the collection is good enough for a reader to take the time to read and re-read it. Many of the poems examine the past, such as 'Commercial Road' and 'What finished the Romans in Britain', and in these it is as if the narrator is a visitor in a museum or a hall of statues; however what differentiates the poems is the degree to which the poetic persona begins to interact with the past being examined. A statue does actually come to life in 'The Return of Mrs Odysseus', when such interaction begins, 'as you beckon she unfolds herself – steps forward.' However, some of the ground occupied by Spurrier is not so much a dialogue with the past as a fight to the death to save life from the ghosts which would claim it.
In 'Sea Level', which was the poem I returned to again and again as I read the collection, the past is 'the suck and clutch of sand', and it is guarded by the screams of 'every damned tern and kittiwake', but the narrator, even as she nets her 'haul of memories', is trying desperately to stay alive:
The churchyard is full of names, there are many ways to join them:
fishing Is one, drinking another, mourning a third.
I fish, I drink, I mourn, yet I am trying not to add my name to that eternity.
The image of screaming birds recurs in the poem 'Scene by the River'. Time has passed, from a mythic beginning in a garden 'with damson and apple', to a city of vodka, rags and rage. The image which also recurs is the image of powerful, uncontrollable water. The Thames in the poem is:
……swollen with rain,
flowing so fast even the swans are turning circles,
paddling without purpose in the reckless current.
Water breaks into the home with violence; in 'The importance of boats and rainbows in exceptional circumstances'…. a “deluge” of rain pours into houses “with hilarity”; in 'Cuthbert loses his cool' ravens have torn the thatch off his roof and he can’t keep dry. Yet, in the title poem 'The Pilgrim’s Trail', the sea and the land are woven together as Aidan crosses the sand so that “all may pass”. The poem is expressing hope, but Aidan is moving swiftly because he can “hear the sea following him” and the tide is covering his trails. The fear of the sea, and the failure to come to accommodation with it is expressed again in a re-telling of the Selkie myth in 'Selkie'. For Spurrier, is the sea the world of the dead, the world of the past? In 'Elegy for Diabag', in which the poet tries to “solve the mystery/of belonging” and a ghost from the time of the clans appears, the road to the sea ends at Diabag, a hamlet which “grieves its loss of souls”
The hinterland of the past, and the world of the dead, is ground similar to the poems of Jamie McKendrick, but what characterises McKendrick is his laconic and humourous narrator. Wit sometimes surfaces in The Pilgrim’s Trail, as in 'What Tom said to the witch', and 'Cuthbert loses his cool', and when it does there is an increase in clarity of imagery and cohesion of slant rhyme. I wanted a lot more of this. In addition, one habit Spurrier should lose is that of using an explanatory single line to close ('Radiocarbon Dating' and 'Thought-weeds'), as it has the effect of dampening down the excellent sense of mystery achieved in these poems.
Alice Willington reviews regularly for Eyewear, and is a British poet.