icehouse poetry / Goose Lane Editions | 96 pages | March 2016 | $19.95 | Purchase online
Review by H. H. Brown
Richard Kelly Kemick’s poetry collection Caribou Run surprises and delights. First, the tawny book cover itself, designed by Chris Tompkins, has concentric irises of caribou circling outward from a spare bone-white title. The texture of the cover and its size makes it feel as if it were an essential guidebook from someone familiar with an immediate physical landscape
where under thick ice
braided water still
runs to the ocean
and who might be relied upon— as it turns out to be the case—to let us know what once moved in pre-historic Ireland, or in a bedroom in Calgary, or remarkably, in a New York subway where a Simon and Garfunkel-singing God is helping out Noah. Typically modest Canadian provocation.
The poems are lively and, like the caribou themselves, hardly ever stand still. What is beautiful is earned, what is intimate is specific and real, and a tenderness towards living creatures, even those who are human, collides head on with an unflinching honesty.
After a first reading, what remains is how Kemick has sympathetically and unsentimentally given us to understand much about the call of life, as when a just-born caribou calf is nudged to move, to move. A cow
bobs her head
along the thread of a vertical plane
until he jostles himself forward
In that same poem, “Postpartum from the Perspective of Grade Ten Biology”, a reluctant pall-bearer is encouraged—
We need to be more than what our bodies demand of us
and later, Kemick seems to suggest that a gaze that does not turn away is one way we keep alive those we care for, as does the caribou who has just given birth and refuses
the hold of her eyes.
His clear architectural analogies of how a caribou’s multiple chambered stomach works surprises: it is both visceral and elegant. One could say the same about what he has to tell us about the relationship between parent and off-spring, between indigenous dignity of description (xalibou means “the pawer” in M’ikmaq) and the calculating exuberance of the Scot, Robert Campbell, claiming to have “forwarded an elephant’s shin bone to the British Museum.” Kemick has fun, quoting poets and explorers of their respective tundras. His humour is bold and willing to take laugh-out-loud liberties. Kemick admits in “Notes, in case you are interested” that he assigned the name of a favoured English teacher to a particular poem, rather than speaking the actual name of a science teacher ever again.
Caribou Run wears its sophistication lightly. It’s a book of many rewards for those familiar with the difference between alexandrine and pentameter, or between an ode and a tanka. For those of us who are moved by the life of animals, including the human ones, this is a book you should buy.
Born in Hastings County, and currently living in Toronto, H.H. Brown won first prize from the National Film Board’s Studio D for the script, How to Call Cows, and spent several years writing screenplays for anyone who’d pay. A happy sojourn teaching English and Film Studies at the college and collegiate levels has been followed by a return to writing, with several short stories and poems published in on-line and print magazines, including Superstition Review, Harpoon Review, Lynn Crosbie’s Hood, untethered magazine, and (parenthetical) magazine, with one story submitted by its publisher to the 2016 Journey Prize.