Dec 10 2022
Poetry review – BOOK OF DAYS : Nell Prince is drawn along by Phoebe Power’s poetic account of a pilgrimage
Phoebe Power’s second collection, Book of Days, is a long poem that concerns the author’s journey on the Camino pilgrimage. It is written in alluring, sensual language which is alive to detail and is full of variation in terms of form. The poem is composed of many smaller poems which cover different stages of the route. I found this made the collection immensely readable.
Power begins with a prelude set in Ely Cathedral, England. She is tentatively wondering about becoming Christian – ‘Could I be baptised?’ – and meets a nun who says ‘You don’t know what God has planned for you’. Later, at the start of the Camino, she shares food at priests’ houses – ‘There are pieces of bread to eat for breakfast dipped in / bowls of milk and coffee, dishes of orange and red jam.’
The religious elements of the collection are not overt – there is something tender, in fact, in witnessing a journey of spiritual growth. It is a difficult thing to frame in a predominantly secular poetry market and, more broadly, society. One of the characters, Teresa, remarks near the end of Book of Days:
there’s more anticlericalism these days, distrust of the Church and a turn towards Eastern spiritualities.
By choosing the well known Camino, Power automatically gives herself the excuse to explore this theme and talk about positive aspects of religion: priests opening up their houses to pilgrims and sharing food and also the beauty of churches, generosity, kindness, and community.
Within the churches people are gathered together, but not necessarily in a religious context. At one church, in Grañon, there are ‘soft brown mats laid closely together / in the eaves. There’s a piano downstairs; someone is saying I’ve written this song – anyone musical?’ In another ‘The hostel’s a church made into a barn’. There is variety in the way churches appear in the collection, and of course, on the route itself. It makes for interesting reading if you, like me, are only used to thinking of and seeing churches in more traditional settings.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this new collection is the fragmented and dynamic community of pilgrims walking the Camino. Whilst the collection follows the protagonist, Phoebe herself, the people surrounding her change continually. At the beginning, a combination of folk, ‘Lisa, Anna, Kate, Rachel, Gay, Cecilia, Sven,/Jerry, Noreen, Laurie, Matt, Marta, Gurnell, Bo, and more’ accompany her at different points, all with different motivations:
I am here to ask God what he would like me to do. I don’t know the reason yet but I will. I’m not happy in my job. I’m here because my wife said it would be good for me. I’m here to look after Noreen, my wife.
Relayed in clear, familiar language, these characters give the collection afluidity, a forward motion which keeps up the interest of the subject matter. It also points to the uniqueness of the Camino as a popular pilgrimage site for young and old alike. The vivid set of characters in the book is testament to this range and recalls earlier pilgrimage literature à la Canterbury Tales or Langland’s Piers Plowman.
One character stood out particularly. Early on, Jin-young from Korea is asked why she is walking the Camino. She answers:
I was studying long time and I didn’t see my friends twelve, fifteen hours a day on computer; on my own never saw my friends I messaged them on phone but I forgot how to talk to people. So I quit my job and come on this Camino to talk, to meet the people.
Through Jin-Young, Power is able to critique modern society’s disconnectedness, including the problem of technology keeping people apart from each other. Power herself goes on the Camino because ‘I can’t find a community where I / fit.’ There is a sense that the walk is a special context and timeframe allowing for community in a way that normal life does not. But it’s all paid for, too. Power doesn’t skip over details: when a fellow pilgrim tells her she wants to set up a ‘Currency of Kindness’ there is some irony in two other characters who then ‘draw cash from the machine’. The Camino itself, if one is being cynical, is as much tourist trap as beautiful journey.
From a literary perspective, the Camino allows Power to test her skills as both lyric and narrative poet, telling the story of the walk often in lyrical fragments, but as one long poem. Finding a balance between lyric and narrative is one of the major tasks of the 21st century poet. The pilgrimage poem offers a way to do this and Power navigates the dilemma by interfusing prose-like sections with more intensely poetic, lyrical pieces. These pieces are especially useful for description of place:
Beech leaves and quiet Shadow spaces, sunny Trunks of sky-grey lichen
also for highlighting instances of colour
furry leaves in the ‘wild garden’ by the blue bridge people do sit on benches under the yellow crowd of chestnut tree looking at water
These vivid descriptions are one of the highlights of the collection. Power has a gift for physical description so you really do get a sense of the texture and sights of the walk. This is in contrast with the more prose-like sections which tell the story, detailing the characters’ journey:
We set off on a steep path. It’s faint and sandy, like the line made by a rubber on the end of a pencil. The village gets more distant, the space around us higher and quieter.
These prose-like sections also serve to give an impression of the hardship of the journey. The walk takes many days and hours in hot sun, and some people are injured and have to recover in hostels.
There is a gripping realism to Power’s descriptions and, ultimately, she makes the Camino look like an attractive opportunity for anyone who wishes to find community away from the normal noise of 9 to 5 life. This is certainly not a collection to be missed.