‘Barbaric Cultural Practice’ by Penn Kemp: A Review

November 29, 2018 Book Reviews , Poetry , POETRY / FICTION




Katerina Vaughan Fretwell



Through the alchemy of love, visionary poet Penn Kemp transforms a politician’s gaffe, “Barbaric cultural practice” into a paean to transcendent loving and celebration of all sentient beings. At the peak of her poetic powers, Kemp expresses the ineffable through life deeply envisioned. Her synaesthetic prowess leads her to metaphoric shape-shifting, wordplay, wit and whimsy, dream and prophesy. Readers are invited to take our earthly stewardship to heart. Activism and attentive outlook inform every poem.


Barbaric Cultural Practice is divided into five sections: Electrical Events, Light Eats, Heart and Stroke: Foundation, Dream Sequins and Wild Crafting. In her prefatory poem, Kemp refers tongue-in-cheek to vague political promises: “We need to stand/ up for/ our values.” Kemp continues: Call the hotline/ Use your words. (Tip Line). She employs poetic magic in embodying her promise to pay attention: but when the poems surface … all that promises a liquid depth/ …an electrical event like/ an aneurysm to the brain. (Disarming Le Revenant). This poem foreshadows the section addressing her beloved Gavin (Heart and Stroke: Foundation) and the section revealing her visionary dreams (Dream Sequins).


Section One, Electrical Events, wittily trumps our electronic-obsessed era with poetry triumphant: Nerbs or vouns each/ with their own symbols/ a key stroke I can choose/ all prefaced by command/ in the form of a clover/leaf, lucky number four. (Mind the Game Moves) thus uniting techno advancement with ancient numerology and metaphor. In this plethora of electronic dis-ease and climactic electrical extremes, Kemp asks: How can we stabilize the earth? … (How dare our mother shake/ us off like a bitch come in from the rain?) (Facing the Epicentre). The poet’s apocalyptic alarm is always leavened with humour: Beware an errant hurricane named for a woman:\ the female ever more dangerous than the male. (Gender Bias Even Among the Elements).


Light Eats, Section Two, awash in wordplay, whimsy and wit, moves from the lush video of a lion eating a zebra (After Image) to our love of sugary junk food (Fare Trade; Ode to Tim Two Bitswoppers) and uses myth to underscore our polluting habits. (For Demeter; For Persephone). To underline her questions’ relevance, Kemp alludes to pop culture: When the Bare Naked Ladies sang “Snack Time”, not one of the stars/ they record choose celery sticks. (Fare Trade).


Deftly showing us the Gaia Hypothesis: All are One, Kemp links love, poetry and cosmic well-being in Section Three, Heart and Stroke: Foundation, by repeating the same stanza in Heart to Art and One By One, They Depart, the Great Ones – a title which also references Henry Vaughan’s “They have all gone into the world of light”. The refrain: Old lays, old lies surround/ and comfort, surround and suffocate. Taken to heart (Heart to Art) becomes: Old lays, old lies surround/ and comfort, surround and /drown the sound of voices (One By One … ). Philosophical and contemplative, this section poignantly depicts her husband’s stroke: His mind is air-brushed/ to a whiter, more capacious landscape/ reflected in such snowy waste outside. (Struck by Stroke). In one brilliant line, Kemp conveys heartache, debilitation as alluded to earlier in aneurysm to the brain (Disarming Le Revenant) and environmental degradation: snowy waste outside. The section’s opening poem reiterates the over-riding theme of poetry’s particular ability to express love triumphant: There is a band of words just above/ the ineffable fabric of love that allows// for poetry. And this: Lobbing the poem over the net: Love all.


Section Four, Dream Sequins, is the most directly visionary in the book. From cliff edges to matriarchal Goddess-worshipping times to the new Jerusalem, Kemp dreams in prophetic panoramas, often wittily: the poem Paraclete Down the Street which includes a tameable parakeet. Transcendence and Oneness are conflated, confluence-d and nuanced beautifully in these lines: Something’s given, something/ larger than the single self. And in the final stanza: At home out there, you spot a plug,/ an electric cord on the floor of/ the heavens. You switch on/ the earth. (the Pageant). Humanity, however, is not off the hook. Change we must: We who’ve taken wrong turns/ over and over since The Neolithic watch\ in wonder. In wonder turns the statement around, presaging the answer: in merging with all that could be. (Reflecting Mimesis).


From trees to tame-versus-wild turkeys to moles, Kemp in the final section, Wild Crafting, continues to emphasize our Oneness: We are star-faced moles,/ reaching nearsightedly for the star// which is always just beyond us. with the admonition: Will we ever learn to reach is not to\ grasp? (Inquiring Minds). Kemp lovingly shows her synaesthetic powers: [Plants] talk to me// in the language of green, of sun and rain. (Apantomancy). And: The poem begins with a figure of speech/ a figure of fun, a fig newton or a figment/ imagination might flare on mind screen.// My work is the translator’s to move one/ sense into another’s realm. (Blow by Blow).


Riffing off Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kemp ends with a powerful prescription for a more hopeful future: Let light fill/ our whole body till cells/dance like dust motes … Let us/ assimilate light till// we are light, just that/bearable lightness/ of being/ just. Erudite, passionate, encyclopedic, panoramic, visionary, prophetic – a slew of adjectives fails to capture the immense achievement of Penn Kemp’s Barbaric Cultural Practice.





Katerina Vaughan Fretwell

My ninth poetry, and art, book, We Are Malala, is coming out this spring with Inanna Press out of York University. My eighth, Dancing on a Pin, with my art, Inanna, 2015, was long-listed for Lowther Prize, was part of International Festival of Authors battle of the bards at Harbourfront and five of the poems placed Runner Up in subTerrian’s Outsider Poetry Contest.


Mary McDonald photo

Penn Kemp

Penn Kemp is the author most recently of Fox Haunts (Aeolus House, 2018) and Local Heroes  (Insomniac Press, 2018). New eco-poems, including her multimedia collaboration with artist Mary McDonald on www.riverrevery.ca, will be published as River Revery (Insomniac Press, 2019). Quattro Books has published two other works, Barbaric Cultural Practice, and an anthology Penn edited, Jack Layton: Art in Action.

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