A review of Vagabondage by Beth Spencer

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

By Beth Spencer
UWA Press
Paperback, 152 pages, ISBN: 9781742586342

Vagabondage is part poetry, part verse memoir, part travelogue. Genre-busting though it may be, there’s a warm intimacy here that draws the reader in instantly, taking us along for the ride as Beth Spencer charts a year spent living and travelling in a campervan. The work starts with an open letter of poetic “prologue” giving the book its context. Though the poetry is easy to read and instantly accessible, the work operates on several levels. There is the political: the woman dispossessed, unable to afford rising Melbourne property prices (and a later nod to the global financial crisis; there is the spiritual: the idea of letting go of attachments and expectations: “I am a whisper/of butterflies”; and there is the tangible: the poet’s attempts to make a coherent life and create meaning during this period of intransience. Everything we define ourselves by: our ‘home’, our roles, our communities, and our ‘job’ have been let go and what’s left is the bare bones.

The result is both exhilarating and frightening (“liberating, /if you can handle the vertigo” (“On Being / Inessential”)), and the poetry that Spencer creates is as powerful as it is easy and immediate. The book is interspersed with black and white photos that serve as relics or artefacts—dropped, lost, remembered, like a platonic version of “home”:

Maybe it was because
our house was already full before I arrived
that I fantasised so much
about a white cottage
and a front path
with violets up the sides
and a green door. (“Dreaming Home”)

The story moves through a number of locations in space. The van takes us along a real road, from country Victoria, along The Great Ocean Road in Warrnambool, up the coast of NSW past a park in Richmond River, the South Coast NSW, and a kitchen in Brisbane.

The book also moves through time, weaving in personal memories of holidays and family occasions (“memory places/of tears and pain”) with the national memory captured in visits to museums, on the Great Ocean Road – “the world’s largest war memorial”, in historic letters, and in those memories that remain in places, such as the house that burns down on “Steels Creek Road” during the Black Saturday bushfires:

I curl my arms out to make a space
to hold that family safe

while our house on the hill goes up. (“Snap”)

The work is all about “de-possessioning”; about leaving behind things, places, and ideas, and how they anchor and define us: “”all the more reason/to let them go.” (“De-possession”) It’s not only things and places who are left, but also people. The narrative is solitary, a single voice wondering what it might be like to travel (on the road or through life) as a couple, about waking and eating alone, about dying alone, and about invisibility (“able to disappear/(no one notices)”: “Bookless, boneless”. Solitude doesn’t quite equate to loneliness though, at least not all of the time. Sometimes it’s joyous to find oneself standing in the sun, a ‘wild thing’, completely in sync with the natural rhythm, and untethered by societal ‘norms’, accommodations, and the many skins that make up modern living. Other times the poems show a painful skinlessness. This body is fully open to the elements, subject to the uncontrollable vicissitude of the environment and whoever might show up and change the space:

Because there’s tension in the air
and I’m absorbing it like a sponge
and I’ve got to get out of here (“Reasons to leave”)

Though there are serious themes in the book, it’s also funny, giving thanks for the air conditioning and toilets available at shopping centres (“Toot-toot!”), the antics of Goofy and Micky on the road, the deep relationship that develops between the driver and her GPS (“Is this what it’s like in a marriage?”), on using public facilities at truck stops, and tips for the dis-possessed:

Join a gym for the showers
Get a magnetic sign for the side
Saying something like
‘Plumbing’ with a phone number attached,
so you can park in side streets
and not look suspicious (“Advice for van-dwelling”)

Though this is a first person traveller’s tale, the book is full of observation of humanity as a whole—from our fear of germs and strangeness, the universal pain of aging, losing the self, and feeling on the outside of society. Above all though, through the pain and dislocation there is a growing self-awareness. An underlying subtext to all of the work is about the inevitability of change: this sense of moving beyond the transition, about leaving behind the dislocation, the fear and pain, towards acceptance of the ongoing waves and rhythms of life:

Gradually we weave a little deeper
into the heart of what we are saying,
until we start to perform something
beyond words. A dance. (“Forgetting”)

Vagabondage is much more than a travellers tale. Though it does indeed chart one year in Spencer’s life when she was a gypsy, travelling the country in her camper van alone, each poem builds up to a memoir of deep self-reflection on what it means to be alive on this earth. The book is a joy to read, mingling lighthearted observation with deep, warm and above all intimate introspection that the reader is invited to join, so that the journey becomes a shared one between the poet and the reader:

“I travel the universe
(out to the stars)
and back again” (“Small world”)