square cover with a purple circular drawing and crayoned letteringPilgrim, Lisabelle Tay

The Emma Press, 2021    £10.00

Opening to a different reading experience

Reading Pilgrim was not like reading your average poetry pamphlet, for me. For a start, the collection — part of The Emma Press’s ‘Art Squares’ series — is square (20cmx20cm). The title text on the cover, in keeping with the illustrations, is crayoned in blueish purple. And when you open the pamphlet, you discover all the text inside is set in the same soothing colour, as well as in quite big, spaced type with centred small-and-large-cap poem titles.

And of course Pilgrim is illustrated — not every poem, but there are four full page drawings (by Reena Makwana) dotted through the book. All this emphasises, for me, an affinity for children’s picture books — which is also encouraged by the collection’s heavy leaning into myth. I found myself back, sitting on the floor of the public library, reading picture books about classic mythology; or at the back of church, reading stories.

These poems, which emanate from a Singapore-based poet, do have personal history woven through them. The opener, ‘What it means to wane’, for instance, starts:

Wilderness inside me    migraine a tide of thickets rushing
   up a hill    blood pressure plummeting

The title poem has:

Today I will pack my bags and start walking
pregnant Lazarus freshly woken

Or ‘Letter to Orpheus’ starts with force: ‘first of all how could you / we were almost there’.

I like the glimpse of perhaps a school chapel in ‘Stigmata’: ‘And then it was time to inhale: / holy water     incense     mould     wood     leather’. And the poem title ‘List of Things Beyond My Bedroom Curtains’, with its marked contrast with what immediately follows:

A warrior cleaning her sword
beside a running river

This blending of personal and mythological allows the poet use of unusual, antiquated, at times rather enthralling word choices — ‘Thus came the mollusk god’; or ‘Shrive me, beloved, / for I have exhausted / the bellows of / this particular life’ — which is the start of the poem ‘Paladin’.

The (reading) adventure continues. I am disorientated. And what I enjoy in that sensation is the pleasure of experiencing something different.

Charlotte Gann