It seems strangely à propos to see refined, award-winning poet and activist Penn Kemp return to a thematics of barbarism in her latest book. Kemp opens with “Tip Line,” a poem that sets the stage for questions about artistic creation and cultural constructions. We are propelled into the “barbaric” world, which is “wild / Cultural” (a play on active bacteria) and haunted by the “wine and cheese / practice” of the artistic class. Kemp begins with a plea for the reader to assess their own position in the landscape (and salons, classrooms, etc.) of CanLit, and how they fit in the spaces where poets and writers commune.
A Canadian dividing her time between this land and that of our neighbours to the south (or, as she writes in “Walking on the Moon, in Moulay Ibrahim,” between “Memory and America”), Kemp is refreshing in her ability to make her reader think outside the lines of identity. Phonic linguistic twists and rib pokes weave through the book (the collection employs a great deal of wordplay, at times somewhat excessively).
Barbaric Cultural Practice does not display a clear political bent, but rather a slant toward the ways writing is “Wresting something out of / nothing” and “constant recycling” in the “collective mind.” Here the reader is pointed in the direction of the book’s anti-colonial sentiments. As she writes in “Die Versify”: “The sound of the perpetual / twentieth century / colonized our future.” In the poignant “Arms and the Boy,” we are introduced to a dire scene of “Women and men cleaving, cleft, bereft. / Dispossessed of a West they thought they knew.” As a woman of colour and a writer, I enjoy Kemp’s voice the way one might appreciate a faulty compass: one that shows the general path to one’s destination, with the partial admittance of human frailty and the impossibility of pure and absolute truth. The book serves as a kind of weathervane, directing readers away from the self-serving act of consuming literature and toward an understanding of poetry as “telling.”
Instead of a scenic walk through tried-and-tested metaphors of literary Canadiana, Kemp guides us, hands free, down the paths of most resistance, asking us to question what it is we seek through the primal consumption of the written word, and what is left after that consumption.