Poems by Ruth Moon Kempher
P.O. Box 792
Rockford, MI 49341
Review by Wendell Smith
I like poetry that is both entertaining (holds my attention) and utilitarian (makes me think.) The latter quality releases endorphins similar to those one enjoys with exercise and Retrievals released plenty of them.
Kempher has chosen an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed”,
"… each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo. …"
that sets an elegiac tone for these poems of recollection. She has arranged her retrievals of memory, which are simultaneously celebrations and laments, into six sections: “Tangled Roots,” “Surfside House,” “Dining Room Table,” “Garden Apartment—7th Street, at the Beach,” “Education” and “Quizzical Natures.”
In the first section, “Tangled Roots,” she begins by longing for an imagined Eden of childhood in "Queen Anne's Lace:"
My Grandma knew the names of all the field
flowers, but I didn't listen. The lavender
Lilac was French, she said, which I knew was far off
where there was war, which wasn't fitting. Peace –
there were Peace roses in her garden, and Ramblers –
* * *
Carrot smell, vague, of Queen Anne's Lace
embroidered my days, easy. Looking up under
its umbrella, kaleidoscope curds, white knurls
on green spokes, turned slowly – Summer
was for hiding mostly, looking up.
Those botanical memories are soon followed by a short poem that describes a practical joke and has a title of comic length, "Heritage – My Other Grandmother: ' Blue Bowl with Flowers,' Maryruth W. Toleman, oil on canvas, circa 1943,"
An old painting
near the tall bakery stand full of books hangs
in heavy antique gold filigree. That frame
came with my mother's leftovers,
* * *
As for the picture –
I watched my grandmother paint it, squinting
as she held up her brush, making measure
of the squat blue bowl
* * *
It's an odd love image.
I have put that blue bowl on the lamp table
close to the bookcase, under the painting.
no one has noticed the juxtaposition.
Or if anyone saw, they didn't say.
Her sense of humor, which shaped the arrangement of objects in this poem, is mid-western; that assessment is also supported by this classic example of down-home diction in “Now is Yesterday, Already:”
“The big red four-blossom amaryllis
collapsed, its stalk over-burdened with flower
flap dab fell over.
Kempher’s ear for the rhythm and understated humor in the diction of this mid-western/down-home language with agrarian roots has its best demonstration in, "Found Poem: Letter from My Grandmother, Writing to Me in Northeast Florida, from Steuben County." It begins with what is, if you know these people, an obligatory note on the weather.
Last week we had real winter move in on this.
We do not have much snow, but the thermometer
dropped to zero.
We are very comfortable though, for we have a good furnace
that works most of the time, and all we have to do
is turn the dial… Grandpa gets so bored
yes he has the television
if he can find a program he will watch.
Poor grandpa – progress has pulled the work, which had defined him, out from under him; he’d be better off with a furnace to feed. Nor would this be a mid-western letter if it didn’t mention the writer’s health and chide the recipient for not writing more often, or have a dig at family behavior; here is the end that fulfills those requirements:
I'm feeling a lot better here just the past two weeks
do not feel so tired and it does seem good. We really enjoyed
your last letter and I hope it won't be so long next time.
You can make out your father's complicated marriages
and children better than I.
Her wit sometimes finds expression in tongue twisting syntax as these lines demonstrate: “inventing a present tense past perfect” from “Now is Yesterday, Already,” and “Murillo died in 1682, and was definitely not/ definitely no impressionist” from “Slides: Room 6C, Dr. Dobrovsky’s Summer Vacation, Cork Trees in Salamanca [Actually Possibly Seville].” Her sleight of hand with words and structures has drawn me back to reread "Watching the House Burn." The poem begins:
And another in the long line of loss. I had not thought
summer could be so involved with deaths;
succotash time and salad days
so turn to brine.
When I reach these lines,
now forfeit to flame.
this house was meant to last forever, a stay
like some symbol turn tangible, place enough
for two to hide, its timbers sapient, green.
At the bottom of the page I always pause, as I did the first time I encountered them, to contemplate the theme of grief, because I thought they were the poem’s conclusion but then I turn the page to be surprised by 15 more lines ending,
These actual flames, unrehearsed
broke out, restless, internal. Fallen Timbers crossed
illuminate our failure, crucified; hurt worse
and die harder than the myth
we understood so well
there'd be no need for words.
Given the way her sense of humor leavens the entire collection, I would not be surprised to find that this double take was intentional and not a compositor’s decision dictated by the number of lines on a page.
These poems are, after all, retrievals, attempts at recovery, but the recovery of what? That which has been lost, misplaced, forgotten, or missed from inattention; and those pains that have yet to be digested for the nutrition of their lessons. As she puts it in “Baked Red Mullet” from the section “Dining Room Table"
The recipe calls for 4 mullet, with or without
livers – to your taste. Ubiquitous garlic and onion join
chopped black olives with basil leaves torn, bruised, and
braised in oil. (Was it Alice B. Toklas who wrote there's
no good cooking that doesn't involve pain?) Or no good
mullet should die in vain.