Read This: This Pagan Heaven by Robin Kemp
Robin Kemp's debut collection, This Pagan Heaven ($8, Pecan Grove Press), has been years in the making. I heard some of the poems in this collection back in 2003 when I first met Kemp on the Atlanta poetry scene. But her body of work took a dramatic shift -- and found a fierce, heartbreaking center -- when her beloved hometown of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The collection opens with a series of love sonnets, which are perfectly nuanced and show Kemp's deft hand at writing formal verse. About eight poems in, Kemp begins to recall her life in Louisiana in "Pelican Sonnet." She praises the pelicans for plotting their return to the bayous despite the taint of petrochemicals, and then wistfully recalls sweet New Orleans thunderstorms in "Dreaming of Your Hair." There are memories of kissing in an automated carwash (Our window rides up, kissing/steam. We roll slowly/together into our miracle...) and her mother's hard won victory over cancer that took one of her breast ("New Breast"). Kemp teases her mother to show off after reconstruction surgery and to pull her shirt up on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras: "...when the college boys scream SHOW YOUR TITS she can and they will fall down and worship her great knockers..."
The center section of the book, "Bodies," is 11 pages of short, free-verse snapshots about those left behind in New Orleans after Katrina. A professor trapped in his attic fighting to save all his books of poetry from the floodwater; an old woman washed away leaving nothing behind but a walker and a plastic bag full of clothes; a bloated, decaying body caught in the flotsam around a city bridge. These images are searing and unforgettable. When she returns to New Orleans after the hurricane, unable to recognize streets and neighborhoods form her childhood, the loss is palpable.
Tucked between these elegies are sharp political poems, including one of Kemp's signature poems, "Pantoum for Ari Fleischer," a rebuke of Bush's former press secretary and how he manipulated the press and public in the run-up to the Iraq war. "Assemble the somnambulant press corps/to help us propagate our well-oiled story,/the old sweet lie of pro patria mori,/not the forces behind it."
Kemp's strong, unwavering voice shines through in all the poems of This Pagan Heaven. Her skill in writing formal poems that sound conversational and uncontrived put her in the company of Marilyn Hacker and A.E. Stallings. This collection was definitely worth the wait.
I wade through a firehose-flood of poems,
longweeping poems, running down the page,
a Mississippi ruptured past flood stage
sucking back its people of mud (I owe them –
true, I who have not been back home as yet
can never know, as no one there knows when
my tears are screened by blind-eyed CNN):
relief, review, response, return, regret –
already, in slow motion, slip away
most words we spoke in common. Still, some flags
do wave, defiant, over toxic slags:
say jambalaya, wherey'at, beignet,
say marrain, Tchoupitoulas. Drown, old South.
Survive, old words. Cling to the roof of my mouth.