It's hard for me to envision a book of poems as a "page turner," but Sea Trails: Poems and 1977 Passage Notes by Pris Campbell is just that. The narrative is about a trip, taken by the author and a man called R, aboard a small boat named Little Adventure. Included within the 100-page volume are not only Campbell’s original notes and recent poems, written 30 years after the trip, but also, for those of us who are undereducated in nautical terms, a glossary of boating terms and asides, such as “How to lay a trot line for catching crabs” (p. 42) — woven into the body but printed on a gray background — along with maps, and a few well-placed black and white photos of the author in her younger days. There is even an entry called “While We Were Gone,” that lists news about Elvis’ death and the launchings of Voyager 1 and Voyager II (p. 88).
The publisher, Lummox Press, has done a nice job of visually separating various book parts. Each part is short enough to keep the reader’s attention, complete enough to stand alone, and relevant enough be truly necessary as a part of the narrative’s whole. There is nothing that does not belong. From Campbell’s note, “How It Began," (pp. 5-6), we learn that she purchases a sailboat, and she and R make the plans necessary for the extended sea-trip. They resign from their jobs, make minor additions to the boat, buy a camp stove and a Porta-Pot, and gather supplies before setting sail.
Then — with the first poem — we are off. The journey takes on life, and this reader found herself living the journey, along with the couple. Campbell is retelling the story in old note and new verse, and I am in search of the vicarious freedom of both travel and ocean. Salt and water, moonlight and wind, become our setting.
I’m ensnared, trapped by increasing
longings to ride that magic carpet
into places different from my own
I let the wind take me.
(“Sea Trails,” p. 9)
The trip that started in Hull, Massachusetts was intended to terminate in New Orleans but ends “suddenly” in Melborne, Florida, when the couple run out of money, health, and tolerance. But along the way, Campbell and R try to rekindle a dying romantic spark. Once “[they] could melt windows, / set trees on fire, make stars / fall from a frozen sky” (“Once Upon a Time,” p 14), but now this is no longer the case. Their romance has been reduced to sex, so that Campbell sometimes speaks with practical bluntness, such as, “I want him in me before weighing anchor” (“Streaking,” p.34) and then waxes hopeful once again with “I pretend he’s an angel washed up over the railing” (“Streaking,” p. 35).
Our boat swings with the tide, waking us.
He slides inside. My very own Adam.
(“Original Sin,” p. 75)
The trip turns out to be more social than the couple had originally envisioned. Not only do Campbell and R go ashore for supplies and entertainment, including a couple of movies, but they meet up with friends along the way, and often two boats travel together for part of the journey. Sometimes the companionship is bittersweet, as R turns violent and flirts with a friend, Margaret. “I know he will / kiss her, if possible” (Birthday Boy, “ p. 64). And yet Margaret is a female witness to the violence Campbell endures, now that the love has gone.
Through the years since this trip was taken, Campbell and Margaret have remained friends, and Margaret even wrote one on the blurbs for the back of the Sea Trails. But life with R isn’t all bad. “His Jekyll has overcome / Hyde today and I exhale.” (“All Saints Eve,” p. 60). And there is also plenty of time spent peacefully as a couple — alone with their cat and the call of the sea. “We fall into the rhythm of sea and sky, / rising at dawn, asleep just after sunset (“Mother Nature,” p. 56).
I learn what heaven is right here
in these blue waters…
I learn how love
of the sea can rush right through you…
(“Sea Speak,” p. 39)
Campbell loves the open sea, but she “hates” the part of the trip that takes them through Florida, “between condo and expensive homes on each side” (p. 81). By this time, the friction between Campbell and R has increased. And now she loses her beloved sea as well, with brief intermissions.
A half-mile without a house
becomes a miracle, a benediction.
(“Sunshine State,” p. 78)
On most of the boats they meet, the women seem to know little about the craft of (boat) navigation. For Campbell, this is much of what the trip is about. She wants to do it all. Not only did she buy the boat — her income was larger than R’s, and this is a bit of a sore point with him from the beginning — but she can pilot it as well as any man, although an old back injury causes her great pain in so doing as the trip comes to its end.
No man has been my keel.
No man has climbed over risky waters
to help hold me steady.
(“Balancing Act,” p. 41)
Campbell’s love for the sea is contagious. “I remain a child of the sea, / …still hear the sirens / calling…” (“Aftermath: Thirty Years Later,” p. 89), she writes in her final poem. She had heard those sirens in the northern waters at the trip’s beginning but lost them as they traveled further south. Writing these poems and compiling them into Sea Trails gave her closure to a part of her life that can be no more. Although the story lacks a fairy-tale ending — with a man and his princess living happily ever-after, perhaps on a ship-castle — Campbell says she has no regrets.
Taken on a sea-journey through words, I am thankful that Pris Campbell chose to share this important part of her life with me and with those who choose to tag along through Sea Trails: Poems and 1977 Passage Notes. And for the part I will not tell, see “Afterword” (p. 90).