Robin Kemp’s This Pagan Heaven (Pecan Grove Press, 2009) is a collection of twenty-five articulate, passionate, finely crafted poems. The book begins with eight sonnets, both Shakespearean and Italian, that follow a traditional rhyme scheme, but vary in meter. The formal skill displayed in the opening poems shows right away that Kemp has earned her poetry chops. Some of sonnets are about love and passion, traditional themes for this form, but others are metaphysical, in the tradition of John Donne. There’s one called “Pelican Sonnet,” with an epigram that says “who the hell writes a sonnet about a pelican?”
“Pelican Sonnet,” which depicts a speaker watching birds in flight “over the bayou’s mouth,” paves the way for the next series of poems in the book. Now the speaker allows her memory to flow. In the free-verse poem “Dreaming of Your Hair,” the speaker remembers a past lover in New Orleans. There are also poems about her parents and her childhood, full of images and details that explain the speaker’s current life as a poet. The pieces are autobiographical, examining the New Orleans of her past.
There are also poems with a political voice, such as “Pantoum for Ari Fleisher” and “Bodies.” “Bodies” is a lyric poem in eight sections that juxtaposes scenes from Kemp’s native New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Because Kemp is from New Orleans, she writes about the flood with an intimate knowledge of the victims and their losses. In “Editing Katrina” the speaker evokes her frustration and grief over the horrific scenes of her beloved city that she has seen only from the CNN news room (where Kemp was a journalist before her current life as a PhD candidate at Georgia State in Atlanta).
One of my favorite poems is the last one, “Red Moon,” a sonnet about a lunar eclipse. I remember watching the same eclipse from my front porch in Marietta. Kemp turns a night of star gazing into a feeling of connection to the people she’s with, a togetherness that engenders a hope for the future, “some hint of God beyond our own dark field. ” This line is a perfect ending for the collection, and a segue into Robin Kemp’s next one.
To learn more about Robin Kemp, visit Robin Kemp: Author, Poet, Writer, Teacher.