Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

On ‘Book of Days’ by Phoebe Power

Rob A. Mackenzie

Book of Days (Carcanet, 2022) is Phoebe Power’s account of making the ‘Camino’, a pilgrimage from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a distance of around 780km. But that’s not quite accurate. The Camino is the narrative around which the rest of the book pivots, but the experience of pilgrimage does not begin or end there. The back cover calls Book of Days “a long poem”. To me, it seemed more like a skilful interweaving of poetry and prose, but I don’t want to quibble too much over definitions. Much as a medieval Book of Hours provided a framework for daily prayer, this book enacts a spiritual journey in its attentiveness to the landscapes, buildings and people Power encounters along the way. It begins in Ely, East Anglia, a chance conversation with a nun who presents her with a copy of her memoir and, after inscribing Power’s name on the inside cover, writes:


Who is also on a journey


Books of Days concludes with what happens the following day. In between are 160 pages that cast those beginnings and endings in a new light through food, conversation, music and silence. Pilgrimage may be a holy calling but the pilgrims are human, fallible and at times unpleasant. Some want to find a spouse. Some seek hook-ups. Others desire only time to contemplate. Phoebe Power is adept at peeling back masks. Take “John, compact and muscular”, who aims to do the entire route in a fortnight with a tent. “I’m a fit lad,” he says “and wanted more of a challenge”. But then:


John’s water tips over the paper placemat. I’m a born-again Christian, he’s saying,
faith, that’s why I’m really doing it, I should have said that before.
He scrambles from the table, skipping dessert, and sets off in the dark again.


The tipping water hints at confusion and lack of balance. Rushing off into the dark without even the consolation of dessert implies an arid, unreflective spiritual state. Matt, a young American tries to strike up conversations with Power early in the book but she tells him she wants to be alone. Soon afterwards, “Matt saw a guy walking, not really talking to anyone, in a quiet and monastic way. I admire that, he says.” The admiration is aspirational or performative. He gets knocked back when he suggests that he and Power exchange phone numbers. The owner of a guest house along the route “didn’t want us to leave. I think he tries to get all the female pilgrims to stay and work for him” – there are hazards for female pilgrims to negotiate, which banish the idea that pilgrimage is an escape from a corrupt and depraved reality. On the other hand, it does have a profound effect on many of those who undertake it and one of the main tensions explored in Book of Days is how to continue pilgrimage authentically upon return to normal life.


As I read through the book for the first time, I kept asking myself what the point was of the descriptions, conversations and experiences. It’s never spelled out, but I think it’s partly to do with attentiveness and immersion and partly about carrying the whole – what you learn consciously and unconsciously – back to where you began but with a shift in sensibility and outlook.


A recurring theme is that of pilgrims walking together, then some moving ahead in groups, others as individuals; people continually meeting, drifting apart, coming together again – like clouds or waves – a fluid community, not a regimented march. Along the way, certain images act like photographic stills, memorialised not for nostalgia but for negotiating the future – the pilgrimage that continues after this pilgrimage. Near Navrette, the sacred and profane meet in the –


plaster statue
of a saint and a pig
turning green in the dawn

Lines of prose slip unobtrusively into short lines of poetry to reflect on a moment’s depth. The town of San Juan de Ortega may be “still and white, nothing/ but bread and prayer”. However, when Power sketches the church –

People cross in front to snap a pic.
But drawing is the length of looking,
no photograph. By drawing I remember it
in its movement, the sun
whose colour from gold towards red-
pink coming out of rioja mortar…


“Rioja mortar” is a memorable outpouring of paradox, the idea of fluidity stemming even from stone, the potential for cutting loose from the most ingrained of habits, the fraying ties of the status quo. It isn’t as though the pilgrim route represents an idealised opportunity for spiritual growth. One pilgrim muses, “…it’s all consumption. We get up every day and eat, buy more, spend but we aren’t contributing anything. It can’t go on for ever. We have to go back to work.” However, in many ways, this isn’t a negative. The conditions of the capitalist world exist on the pilgrimage, but so do the conditions for focused dissent. When Power’s sister drops into the pilgrimage halfway through for a few days, she can’t connect with the pilgrim experience. She feels like an outsider and leaves. It isn’t the book’s strongest moment. Power represents it through an over-elaborate underwater metaphor and it felt to me like a missed opportunity to explore spiritual experience through a kind of via negativa – the sister’s lack of immersion – without a metaphorical cloak. However, I did admire Power’s refusal to impose spiritual meaning on ordinary events. Instead, she lets the surfaces speak – conversations, candle-lit churches, meals and landscapes combine to produce a life-defining experience, all the more real and effective because of its imperfections.


After returning home, Power experiences a degree of disorientation, but continues to engage with what’s around her. Much of what she records from the south of England echoes images and experiences from the pilgrimage, including dreams and memories of the past that take on new significance. Moments of community, compassion and solidarity become themselves part of an ongoing pilgrimage that began before the Camino and continue afterwards. At a church service on Ash Wednesday:


I am marked with ash: earth, dust, what has been burnt, muddied, destroyed or disappeared to nothing. They ask us simply to recall this: we are not made pure, and the journey is not completed.


Power had made judgements on both others and herself during the pilgrimage. At one point, she questions a couple of English pilgrims on how they justify holding leftist politics while working for corporate bodies in the city. They clam up at her antagonistic approach and the divide between them never quite closes. At another point, she is walking with fellow-pilgrim Rachel when they find out that another pilgrim, Clare, “is still in town with a bad ankle, on her own in an Airbnb somewhere”. Rachel wants to go back for her, but Power can’t bring herself to do so. She ploughs ahead and feels guilty. The experience later on Ash Wednesday is both chastening and liberating, as she remembers her mistakes but also that she is nevertheless still on the incomplete journey, even while home.


A return to where you began is a recurring motif, although a person is not always the same with each return. Experience reshapes future experience of the same place. Power goes back to Santiago de Compostela and walks a further 100km to Fisterra, an unofficial addition to the pilgrimage. She gets hopelessly lost and directionless, but a woman leads her back to the town, to the very point she’d gone off-route. But now a storm is brewing, and rain is “starting to paint the air”. This feels like both an outer and inner state, a precariously liberating energy, as Power pauses for “just a few minutes more”.


The book also turns full circle and ends where it began, the day after her encounter with the nun and a decision to walk the Camino using money left over from a student loan. She asks on an internet forum about the best time to do it. One reply states:


There is no right time to go on pilgrimage.
You don’t have to go anywhere
to be on pilgrimage.


In other words, she is on pilgrimage before and after the Camino. However, the Camino has decisively marked how Power understands the sojourn she is on and has always been on. The post-Camino portions of the book, the dreams, memories and experiences past and future, are vital to show that pilgrimage isn’t “just a walk” but an openness to community values, reflective experience and provisionality, and a profound and continual challenge to the way we live and think, a daily recollection that “we are not made pure, and the journey is not completed”.