For Those Without Air (Conditioning)

Night Orchestra, a poem written & performed by me with #music & #Sound design by marvellous composer Bill Gilliam & visual editing by Gera Dillon. Opening title painting: Jim Kemp

Night Orchestra

Deep in summer
stillness, an electric
hum of air conditioner
in B flat flat monotone
entrains my body

Heat produced to cool
my neighbours thrums
the outside air, heats
up our collective night.

Mechanical multitudes
self-replicate in chorus,
relentless fridge and clock.

The only spell breaker
is a tape of Tibetan chant.
Deep harmonic overtones
conjure a resonance,
disturb the sine waves.

Sleepless in the Beaches,
I resist the single sound
as Blake deplores single
vision and Newton’s sleep.

The sound of the perpetual
twentieth century
colonizied our future
with a dominant beat, sales
pitched for comfort, con-
venience, reliance on

The pity is not
that the century
wound to a close but
that it’s whining
on and on

Somewhere beyond
the pervasive rattle,
waves break on the shore.
Species diversify.

From:   On Our Own Spoke. CD-ROM. Toronto: Pendas Productions, 2000.
Text updated: 2021

The audio alone is up on › penn-kemp › night-orchestra.

Painting: Jim Kemp

For Ula, On Graduating Grade 8

May you keep on flying, Beauty!

And for Kai! And her cousins Ana, Matteo, Neveah, Olivia, Audrey, and Rowan.
And for all those who attended their graduation ceremonies virtually.

You can hear my reading:


In the space of a year Ula has learned to sit,
to stand, to walk, to totter forward in a run.

She has seen one full round of the seasons.
She wraps her family round her little finger.

Now just before dusk we stroll hand in hand
to witness the evening ritual of geese return.

Gliding along the Thames in formation, they
skim overhead, flapping slow time in synch.

She studies their procedure, dropping my hand
to edge forward, neck outstretched, arms aero-

dynamically angled. She flaps and flaps along
the bank, following their flight, ready for that

sudden lift. Again, again, till the last goose has
flown. Dragging her heels home, disconcerted,

she braces her body against the rising breeze,
bewildered that she too can’t take off to sky

but game to try again tomorrow, convinced
the birds’ secret will soon belong to her. 

Nanna Penn

Issue Four: Wednesday’s Man by Penn Kemp

I’m so moved by how Catherine Owen breathed into my poem with such a close and astute reading!.

The The

Penn Kemp has participated in Canadian cultural life for 50 years, writing, editing, and publishing poetry and plays: 30 books and 10 CDs. Penn is theLeague’s Spoken Word Artist (2015) and inaugural recipient of the “Muttsy” award! Hercollection,A Near Memoir: new poems(Beliveau Books), recently launched.

Of the old poets, the one I most
often call on is Creeley.

That singular
eye. That dear
clear voice.

That. Oh, and
this. Odin, move



Catch as catch can.
Stand your staff
by. Wander, Wotan,

over new terrain where
words no longer

Where you wonder
why. Or rather why
not, when over form.


When the deep-sighted
eye opens
worlds, no need of
catchphrase to recant.

Why funnel
many dimensions down
to one small realm of


Bob, have I
lost you in clouds
of northern gods?

Not foreign to you but
absent. Irrelevant, off-

And you. Are you…

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Sage-ing, Summer 2021

Sage-ing With Creative Spirit, Grace and Gratitude

P. 25. Number 37, Summer 2021.

The Solstice edition of SAGEING is out, with fine articles by Susan McCaslin and John Lent. AND a review of A NEAR MEMOIR by Richard-Yves Sitoski !


Penn Kemp with Richard-Yves Sitoski 

Even as we are isolating in place during this long pandemic year, we need to conjure a sense of community… now more than ever, perhaps. These days, my community lives on-line and in memory through many decades. Because I think in poetry more than prose, my musings turned into a collection, A Near Memoir: New Poems, and I welcome the new connections my memoir is bringing to me.

Richard-Yves Sitoski

I write this at 4:36 a.m. on a mid-May morning, 56 weeks into a pandemic that has left me simultaneously enervated yet full of a need to move, to do. I have become my cat, essentially, alternating between endless hours of otium and brief instants of frenetic activity. Because my priorities need realignment and my insecurities ministrations, I have, like many, turned to poetry, greedily hoovering up biographical and autobiographical works in an attempt to feel rooted. Penn Kemp’s new chap, A Near Memoir, therefore arrived at an opportune time. Kemp looks at the body of her cat in “For a Small, Beloved Descendent of Bast.” There’s a wonderful juxtaposition here of the promised mythologizing indicated by the title with the very matter-of-fact description of the cat’s lifeless state, leading to a payoff at the end that takes us into Christopher Smart territory.
As the title indicates, her book is not a memoir – it can’t be, with only 23 poems – but rather a brief compte rendu of a life of dynamism and poetic invention. In its scope and concerns, however, it accomplishes one of the roles of a memoir, which is (to reverse engineer the paraphrase of Heidegger that serves as the book’s epigraph) to “empresent” the past and bring it near in a process that slows the future’s approach.
Context is key. Kemp situates the personal in the familial and the familial in the public, sometimes through slapstick satori slaps that take us out of our own egos – symbolic and physical falls to the “sous-face” of the Earth – and remind us that we are part of something bigger than we can possibly understand. In “Shooting the Duck,” a young Penn becomes resigned to figure skating, fails in the process of “enduring” her mother’s encouragement, and we find in her mother’s motives shades of vicarious living.

Shooting the Duck

During the snowy winter of 1952, when I was eight
mom drove me each week to the Arena for a figure
skating class. She outfitted me just right, in a navy
blue velvet skirt that just covered my bum, a white
rabbit muff that kept me warm, a pompom wool cap.
En route mom told me romances of skating to Silver.

But those nasty nicks on the skate blades would trip
me up just as I pushed forward. Even when I learned
not to topple over, I could not figure out how to shoot
the duck. The ideal was to hunker down till you were
nearly sitting on your skates, then to dart one leg out
like the barrel of a gun as you coasted along the ice.

Not me. Invariably I’d end up on my bottom, gangly
colt legs galumphing out in front of me. An older girl
skated graceful rings around the fallen and the splayed
in a swirl of perfection as glumly shivering we tried to
imitate her glide. Like an unwelcome, embarrassed dog,
our wet legging stench slunk into the arena’s crisp air.

But I’d been given a dime and a nickel. My reward after
class was a soggy and savoured cone of chips, best chips
ever, the paper cone soaked in salted vinegar, well worth
taking mittens off for and enduring mom’s encouragement
on the wet-bottomed ride home. She’d been an avid skater
on outdoor ponds and still had unwarranted hopes for me.

Her dream of Winter Olympic Championship held no sway.

Getting back to the importance of context, one of the most affecting pieces in A Near Memoir is “Circling the Gulf,” which to me articulates something that may seem heretical in the discourse surrounding mental illness: that what we call illness might very well be a rational, if not reasonable, response to trauma. How should we on the outside react to war? Is it not possible that the trauma of war can be visited upon some people not directly involved in conflict, simply by virtue of their extreme sensitivity to our shared humanity?
Kemp leaves it to you to decide; what she does tell you, however, is that the situation played out in her family in a very specific way which ought to be considered by all of us, as we are currently living through a nightmare scenario that will have emotional ramifications the likes of which we can’t honestly predict. which to me articulates something that may seem heretical in the discourse surrounding mental illness: that what we call illness might very well be a rational, if not reasonable, response to trauma.

A Near Memoir, then, is a stop along the way in a career that has given us much poetry and given much to poetry. It does what poetry is meant to do, celebrating the universal by highlighting the particular, and whets our appetites for what will come next.

Richard-Yves Sitoski

Circling The Gulf: A Gain A Loss, Ingrained

Signs proliferate as we pass by. Plastered on the auto dealership plate
glass: SAVE THOU SANDS SAVE THOU SANDS. Save thou souls,
save thy soul, grain of sand, rain of rant, cycles of want and plenty.

We are so defined by the stories we tell and those we as children hear.
For years, as I was growing up, ‘war stories’ were served with dessert
at the table. Over & over, I listened to my grandfather’s tales of leading
a regiment of Iroquois troops in battle on the killing grounds of France.

This warrior tradition emerged in my son in a fantastical, twisted way.
During an acute psychotic episode, he was hospitalized. His terrible
adventure, coinciding with the Gulf War, took on metaphoric overtone.
Even the word “gulf” looms between realities. Mind the gap, mine hole.

As a child, he listened to my father’s stories about his work as a bomb
disposal expert in Scotland during the Second World War. That stress
internalized by my son with dreadful accuracy. I believe a literalization
of memory occurs down generations all the time. Our work is to stop
the war in art and life so that the children don’t continue to enact conflict.

At the height of concern about the possibilities of chemical, biological
or nuclear warfare, he became convinced he himself was radio-active,
a bomb about to explode. Who is to say what his response to threats
of nuclear annihilation should have been? His was a tortured way of

reinventing personal history, of linking himself up with our tradition
of war service, of families disrupted by early deaths from wounds borne
on the field of battle. With the end of the Gulf War, my son recovered
and continues to celebrate family histories to this day as our memory

Penn Kemp

On Sunday, September 5, 2021, 7:30 – 9:35 pm, Kemp will be reading from A Near Memoir: New Poems as featured poet in the Red Lion Reading Series:
Kemp is thankful for a CAIP grant from the London Arts Council, allowing time to write these poems.
A numbered copy of A Near Memoir, signed to you, is available by writing to

Penn Kemp has participated in Canadian cultural life for 50 years, writing, editing and publishing poetry and plays. Her first book of poetry, Bearing Down, was published by Coach House, 1972. The League of Canadian Poets acclaimed Penn as their 2015 Spoken Word Artist and she is the League’s 40th Life Member. In 2020, she was presented with the inaugural Joe Rosenblatt (Muttsy) Award for Innovative Creators. In 2021, she was nominated for the League of Canadian Poets’ Pavlick Poetry Prize.

Richard-Yves Sitoski is a poet, spoken word performer, visual artist, songwriter and poverty activist from Owen Sound. His works have appeared in periodicals in Canada, the United States and Great Britain.


Resistance: an anthology

Resistance: Righteous Rage in the Age of #MeToo

 University of Regina Press. Sue Goyette, editor.

Thanks to U. of Regina Press and editor Sue Goyette and all the courageous contributors to this important anthology. May our voices help those who need to hear our words.

The launch of this anthology is up now on

Here is my contribution, the poem below and my reading, up at 29:30- 31:30 on RESISTANCE: the official launch.

My longer reading is up on “What We Know Now”,

What we did not know in 1972. What has changed.

It’s too late. He has jumped me, fallen on me, almost as
in love, catching his weight in his hands as they smack
against the grungy linoleum tiles I’ve wanted to replace.

The kitchen wall is rippling. The chalky ceiling bulges
as if it needs new plastering; as if something is trying
to pound through, something that can’t be contained.

A flash flood, a fire? My spine slams against the door.
My skull is permeable. I know what’s going to happen.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. Time expands to
include all the random possibilities of thought, of world.

Tectonic plates collide. I know that he erupts explosively,
a system under great pressure from without, from below.

His face balloons massively through the mist. I know him.
I know that drawn-down mouth, mask of Greek tragedy.

How often I have traced the dimple in his chin, a line from
nose to mouth where God pressed His finger: the philtrum.

His fingers close, blunt tips touching, the heels of palms
meeting as if in prayer. Relentless hands ring my throat.

Gold wedding ring presses deep into my gullet. Even in
absolute panic, my body responds to his closeness, dearly

familiar and almost kind. My breath stops, is stopped. My
breath holds itself, forgets itself under his thumbs, then

gasps. And is forced quiescent.

I have already disappeared up the smoky trail, out the top
of head into wide blue sky. A buzz as of bees in the cool

expanse of air. Strange croaks seem to start in my gullet
and travel up with me into the vast and empty. I am flying.

Mewling, I hover, open my new eyes to glimpse our roof, so
puny from this height. Beyond him, beyond myself, above.


Violent shaking startles me out of freedom: a sudden updraft.
I’m being pulled down the vortex of consciousness back into

a body I thought I’d surrendered. The sound in my ear, carol,
carol, and no song but choking, roaring. Nothing but his voice,
loud as Poseidon in a seashell in my ear. He’s really done it now.

I swim in an ocean of blood. Swirling red currents fill each cranny
of consciousness and this time I go under, diving, divining down.

When I emerge, he is gone but the room is swirling around me
in colours of other travels. Turkish scarlet cushions. Moroccan

striped curtains dance a jig of molecules that confuse my senses.
I am lying on the couch. I shut my eyes again, not to see. Not

to hear. His footsteps, running closer. Water, soaking my head.
I look at him. A yellow cast of fear lies over last red flares of rage

on his face. But the hands that hold the basin barely tremble. “If
you’ve quite recovered,” he announces, his voice oddly strangled.

“I’m off to town. Just take it easy. You’ll be all right!” He commands.
Irony of statement, concern of question or relief: it doesn’t matter.

Pain neatly divides head from shoulders. Voice creaks like something
inanimate outside its box. Words, the ability to make words— gone.

Phrases flutter and dissolve. “I’ll be all right.” Something automatic,
something ancient in me, is attempting re-entry. “All right. Just go.”

He is already gone, a flash of yellow bike. Silence except for
that buzz of wasps in my head. Wasp-words ring in my ears.


Can either of us remember what it had been about this time?
His jealousy of my phantom lover, the one that got away…

Who knew for sure what happened. What is this complicity
between us?  Already it’s as if nothing at all had happened.

We can talk to no one, certainly not each other, about
the sudden black holes, the mine-fields in ordinary
conversation that suddenly erupt. Because most often,

they are not there. The house is simply a house, the scene
domestic with cat and kids, and cauliflower on the stove.

I can talk to no one. I cannot talk. When I tried—family or
friends—all told me that it was none of their business. Not
to interfere. Not to know. I made my bed. Now lie in it. Lie.

When I did call the police, they listened intently to my story.
“Is the perpetrator your husband, ma’am?” “Yes.” “I’m sorry.

We do not interfere in cases of domestic assault. Thank you
for calling the Precinct.” The dial tone still rings in my ears.

And where could I go anyway, on my own with two kids
and no money and a body that will not move. Shame— I

wrap it around me to keep warm as if it were my own,
protecting me from the eyes of neighbours, hiding black

and yellowing bruises under sleeves and stockings. What
have I done? Dishes, drying in the sink. What has he done?

The fingers I’ve studied so closely, bald sentinels drumming
action. Beating to their own rhythm, the jazz that syncopates

sudden movement. My glasses hang by a wire arm, frame twisted.
Retribution, then contrition. Pain is finite after all. He comes back

begging. I pride myself on the ability to forgive that’s been bred
into me. A flip of power and I get whatever I want; he does what-
ever I want. Until resentment steams over again. Next time. No.


There will be no next time. There’s never going to be a next time.
This I believe on faith. This he believes on faith. When he returns

after the kids are asleep, he knows he has changed, knows his ire
has disappeared forever, as if it never was. I know there is no more

fear. I pray there is no more fear. We hold onto each other all night.
without a word. Stealthily, while his breathing deepens, I practice

opening and closing my throat for when the words come. If I could
speak. For when I will speak. My jaw creaks on its wrenched hinge.


His thumbs are imprinted on either side of my windpipe like black
sentinels. For days, I wear a long turquoise scarf and go around

pretending I am Isadora Duncan. Pretending I could fly. Secretly,
unwinding my scarf, I inspect the delicate progression of bruises.

A circle of yellow surrounds the thumbprint. I think I can make out
the actual whorls that are the perimeter. Black fades to purple, then

softens to a yellowish centre. In the mirror, that face that is not mine
looks out at me from the telescoped distance of time, wrinkled thin

with the patience of years. Her eyes clear and almost wise, assuring—
she is somebody I will become, the face I will grow into someday.

Penn Kemp

“It’s so important that the stories of the survivors be told and honoured. We are all one. Consciousness and the best forms of art go hand in hand and this is something your work demonstrates. The moment in “What we did not know…” that shone for me was the last one where you looked into the mirror and beheld your own face, knowing it as “The face I will grow someday.” And surely you have grown it and it has grown you. I’m glad poems about violence against men were included and hope that men and women will join together to address the systemic evils that allow such horrors to happen and be tolerated. Your tone was just right, not over-dramatized but authentic, each line finding the precise tenor and music to best accompany it as it moved from horror, to lament, through to healing.”
Susan McCaslin, author of Heart Work (Ekstasis)

“This is the strongest, most potent poem I’ve ever read about violation! Closely observed, the disassociation of flying over the rape, the denial, hope, lack of support of friends and authorities! the grounding in myth and history! The image of his wedding ring imprinted on her gullet is haunting and such a stark clear image of his physical violence! Brava and huge courage! Love in overcoming,” Katerina Vaughan Fretwell, author of Class Acts (Inanna)

Heraclitus, Ongoing: a poem

Books I read are in the process of shaping, shifting
each time I open them. Not just pages but the content
won’t let me step into the same novel twice. Characters
talk back and letters dance jigs that won’t stand still.

Nor do I step into the same house twice. When I come
home, the front hall shifts to accommodate the change
I bring in my wake from outside realms. And the place
itself has contentedly settled within my absence.

I don’t step into the same dream twice. Oh, I try to return
to change the story, to divert the flow from disaster. But
the dream flips a new twist into its narrative, leaving me
to contend with eddies and currents I never suspected.

I don’t step into the same grief twice. Each has its own
taste, bitter, sweet or bittersweet, its intense specificity.
marked distinct and marking me. Every sorrow forms
a trail you know me by, sure signature of some loss.

I don’t step into the same life twice. Whether I step
into the same death is anyone’s guess: so many small ones
you’d think would prepare me, but who knows what
awaits us over on the other side, en la otra orilla.

I don’t leave my shoes on the bank and wade in.
I don’t recover what is swept away in the current.
Every poem hovers on the bridge over metaphor.
I don’t step into the river at all.

Penn Kemp

“Heraclitus, Ongoing,” P. 28-29.
Paintings by Jim Kemp, P. 49-50.
A Near Memoir: New Poems cover, P. 67.

Beliveau Review #8, June 2021
Scroll down,

Jim Kemp,
“Zen Burst”

Jim Kemp, “Moth”