Unpious Pilgrim (Fly By Night Press 2011) by George Spencer

Reviewed by Susan Scutti


George Spencer’s Unpious Pilgrim is an extended ars poetica as well as a precise map of the poet’s many literary influences. To lead the way, Spencer generously provides a reader with quotations from his favorite notables and then divvies up his poems into six purposeful sections: Planning the Trip, Things to be Learned, Travel Advisory (Troubles Writers Have), Forms and Other Detours, People I Have Met and Places Visited (Some of Which I Wish I Hadn’t), and The End in Sight. Much like a guided tour, then, the book resolutely escorts a reader from one historic milestone to another, the many stops along the way of Spencer’s pilgrimage. Meanwhile, the magic occurs when the heavily deterministic structure of the book fades from a reader’s awareness and individual poems rise to the fore.

Take, for example, “Inventing Poetry”:


Like Petrarch dreaming up his little love song, the sonnet,

to see if he could get Laura under that duck feather duvet

where they could do the rhyming couplet.


Succinct and clever, this small but mighty poem contains a heart-stopping combination of sight and sound end-rhymes. The tercet also deftly promotes Spencer’s understanding of poetry as, first and foremost, Love’s subversive agent (To heck with polemics or didactic poetry! a reader hears Spencer cry). Most importantly, the poem recalls the book’s opening lyric, “Love Song“, which boasts similar DNA as Petrarch’s “little love song”:

I travel.

I think about love.

I try to make connections.

I’d like a girl friend and you could be my bowl of fruit,

my prickly pear, my cactus.


Flowers bloom in the desert after it rains.

Not long.  Not often.

Love’s like that.

Like old maps.

Interesting because they are usually wrong.

More imagination than co-ordinates.

We must be happy with that.


So where am I? Where are you?

The rain is discouraging but good in the desert.

Though my socks are wet

I think I see a bright future behind that mesa, that mountain.

They are forever.

We are mist and magic.


Four spare stanzas, this particular love song does not waste a word or unravel any complex rhymes, it is simplicity itself in every regard but sentiment, which is not at all ordinary. And so this is a common texture in his work: Spencer often generates sparks by mixing the prosaic with the elevated. In fact, he most often performs this trick in his prose poems, where he works adeptly and successfully. That said, the many prose poems in this collection also happen to be the most revealing of the poet himself.  Take “24-hour allegory pills”, in which Spencer assumes the persona of an office worker to make a point or two about symbolism:

I’m Ed from Accounting. Someone has to balance the books. Do the shopping. There’s no free breakfast. You want to make your own rules you gotta make your own bed, clean the bathroom. Be good and you get to sleep in the bridal suite one night. That’s what happens when you wear all that make-up. Life can be delicious. Depends which tooth you flavor. Smile, Freddy Krueger! Bloody Lagoon! The science of friction. Snakes marry for life. Kill one, the other will get you.

Un-selfconsciously, the poet reveals how corporate chatter — both office speak as well as all the talk about and within “Hollywood” movies (read corporate-made movies) — flows into his voice as naturally as the phrases of his favorite literary lions. By playing with both quotidian and literary influences, by blending everything and anything into the mix, Spencer shows a reader the true strength of his voice. Or, to put it another way, he shows a reader exactly how much of an unpious poet he can be.

Another prose poem, “Seasons”, reveals Spencer at his most natural and gifted:

Summer has its opinions and we must listen to it. 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 where he’s buried. Perhaps time means something. What is something? A key, a code, a chain.  A watch.

Effortless to read with its casual diction, internal rhymes, assured imagery, brief statements and quick questions, the poem nimbly turns and winds its way down to a final symbol leaving behind a comprehension of timelessness if not time.

This reader’s one reservation about Unpious Pilgrim is that Spencer employs too many epigraphs (nineteen!) and too rigorous a structure in order to make his point; this collection possesses a natural cohesion without all that distracting and distancing effort. In the end, the book may strive to be an ars poetica yet it also amounts to an autobiographical sketch in verse; a reader glimpses the poet behind the poems, the writer who struggles to survive his literary influences just as the many other details of his life — and some would say more important details, such as family and friendship and love — recede into the background. The resulting portrait is decidedly lopsided in that it emphasizes the hands, so to speak, and not the face of the poet. Yet this is exactly why it echoes Parmigianino’s “Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror” and also calls to mind Ashbery’s ekphrastic poem of the same title, which, if not Spencer’s intention, certainly is to his credit.



Susan Scutti‘s most recent novel is The Deceptive Smiles of Bredmeyer Deed.  Her poems and stories have been published in New York Quarterly, The Christian Science Monitor, The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry and other journals and anthologies. She is an abiding fan of Brussels sprouts despite the overshadowing popularity of kale.