Bright Hill Press, 2013
Paperback, 82 pp. $16
Reviewed by Ann E. Michael
Ruth Moon Kempher has been publisher of Kings Estate Press since 1994 and, in that capacity as well as on her own, has long explored the overlap and connectedness of art forms such as poetry, jazz, and painting. Many Kings Estate Press anthologies revolve around such themes, and Ms. Moon Kempher demonstrates a deft touch as editor. In her recent solo collection from Bright Hill Press, the poet has the opportunity to structure her own work, and her approach reflects her anthology experience. She groups her poems into seven subtitled sections that are thematic and quirky.
Quirky poems, too, sometimes; and I mean that in the best sense. Kempher’s work never shies from humor, the twisted meaning; she embraces wordplay, seeks a bit of the contrary to tweak her reader out of complacency. While not all of her poems are curious and quizzical—the title piece, for instance, is a tiny heartbreaker with only a hint of self-deprecation—this collection aims to entertain with surprises in topic, image, and narrative and benefits from rollicking rhythms and clever insights that link each poem with the next.
An example of Kempher’s adeptness with puns, sound, and image:
“Object of Affliction: The Thistle
is, speaking in tongues
a lisp of nasty business, having been
picked here, for its ill nature
or rather, once
having been plucked
into one’s pocket, it’s a ticklish
These thistles “stick around” (of course!) and are “too ephemeral to persevere/forever, too multiple/to stop.” Significant wisdom in those last three lines, proof also of Kempher’s facility with wonderfully observant phrasing. Her use of language can be metaphorical but also simply descriptive and clear. She writes, “a barber buzzed a bent neckline,” “Wisteria wrenched/arthritic knuckles on the sill, the sun-gold stucco…” and “A spun trap for the eye. Very quiet. No music.” In “The Hybridizer Crows,” which sports an epigraph from Finnegan’s Wake, she produces a James Joyce-Wallace Stevens mashup through a Gertrude Stein-like set of stanzas that are fun to read aloud.
Ruth Moon Kempher seems most comfortable writing poems that exude the gorgeous weirdness of coastal Florida, with its mix of abundant flora, eccentric human denizens, sea, sand, boutiques and coffee shops all offering moments of the unexpected. Weather included; when hurricane season looms, she notes “Pointer tips on isobars/coiled like fallen phonelines, expectant/county by county, urgent patterns/in paisley loops of leaf and rain…” If you want a taste of Saint Augustine, the collection provides. Kempher has lived there for decades, and this experience also colors her poetry—the issue of whether age ever develops into wisdom (“Of Keys, And Time” is a wonderful example”). She does look back with a wry gaze, but most of her work celebrates the current moment and indeed the very work itself, as in “Northeast Winds: Of Separation” in which the speaker admits
“Some days, though
it’s not so easy, writing. The work takes you
back into sea skuzz, old manuscript dust…”
We can be glad that Ruth Moon Kempher prevails against the sea skuzz and the difficulties of remembering, sorting, observing, and writing. She is correct when she says “Walls of words and silences need those quirked openers those corkscrewed expressions.” Indeed, they open up unusual and entertaining worlds.
You can buy the book here: http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9781892471727/what-i-can-tell-you.aspx
Poet, essayist, librettist, and educator Ann E. Michael is Writing Coordinator at DeSales University. Her work has been published in many journals, including Poem, Natural Bridge, Ninth Letter, Runes, Diner, Sentence, Slant, ISLE, The Writer’s Chronicle, Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts and others, as well as in numerous literary anthologies. She is a past recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Her chapbooks include More than Shelter, The Minor Fauna, Small Things Rise & Go, and The Capable Heart. Her full-length collection, Water-Rites, is now available from Brick Road Poetry Press.