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A Dazzling Multi-Media Response to Our Changing Climate:
Penn Kemp's River Revery

Penn Kemp's River Revery
Penn Kemp, River Revery
London: Insomniac Press, 2019.

River Revery is both the name of Penn Kemp’s latest poetry collection and the name of a multimedia collaboration between Kemp, Mary McDonald and Dennis Siren. The book is a masterful companion to McDonald’s video poems and photographs and Siren’s videos, which are included in the collection through QR codes. Complemented by these other works, Kemp’s intimately observed natural interactions are topically poignant, given the climate cataclysms hovering over earth. In performance and in her book, Kemp leads the reader/viewer into an appreciation and comprehension of what we have lost and will lose through playful trickster words and alliteration.

Dedicated to her grandchildren Ula and Kai, Kemp’s opening poem, “River Revery,” pulls no punches: “Water abounds here, with this river // five times normal width for winter, […] Climate change is certainly upon us.” Thames River as main character and environmental symbol, depicts our unpredictable weather’s severity and ends in alliterative wordplay: Spring stands for hope and renewal, which is echoed in the closing poem, “Snow, Snow’s ending”: “Tundra swans have been spotted, thousands/ to alight […] Soon / surely. Spring. Again.”

One QR code leads to a recording by David Siren of a reading at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Kemp, reading from “River Revery,” encourages the audience to be her chorus, her words enhanced by a girl’s staccato “Yay,” a violin’s ominous dissonance, and a basso continuo beat.

Another QR code leads to Kemp’s Luminous Entrance: A Sound Opera for Climate Change Action, a DVD edited by Siren from a live performance at Aeolian Hall, London. In this performance, Anne Anglin choruses:

a river runs well
a well runs dry

a ranch runs through
a river rises.

Penn mimes sounds of the wild, which end in a highly dramatic silence underscoring what we stand to lose because of climate change, and her long vowels add gravitas.

McDonald’s exquisite close ups of flowers, birds, and trees, and the Thames River, accompanied by Kemp’s soulful text, bring home viscerally the sacred beauty of nature. “Riparian” augments such loveliness: “on svelte bank / swallows dart and swoop, chittering to one another.” We are drawn into bird-speak as involved witnesses. Kemp closes with a zinger regarding our negative complicity: “Without us, the river would repair (itself) in time.”

By turns rhapsodic, irreverent, playful, and elegiac, and always eloquent, Kemp’s poems and Siren’s and McDonald’s multi-media presentation seduces the reader/viewer with the luminosity of word, sound and image, then galvanizes us into concrete action. Sometimes the message is direct, as in “What to Do When Bees are Few”: “we cannot be excused until we change / the narrative.” And at other times, poignantly subtle, as in “Doctrine of Signatures”: “Goldenrod scimitars flash solid arabesques of late / summer, late afternoon, late in our lives for such / luminous entrance.” These words convey Penn’s acute sense of climatic emergencies, the multiple meanings of is it too late? are humans doomed? can we turn this around? The repetition of “late” drives home our precarious existence.

This multi-media spectacle is marvellous, for its magnificent visual delights and its compelling call to action.

 

Katerina Vaughan Fretwell’s ninth poetry collection, We Are Malala, which includes her art, was published by Inanna in 2019. Her eighth, Dancing on a Pin (Inanna, 2015), which includes her art, was part of IFOA’s Battle of the Bards, was long listed for the Lowther Prize, and had 5 of the poems place Runner Up in subTerrain’s Outsider Poetry Contest.

 

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