Review: Local Heroes by Penn Kemp

Reviewed by Jennifer Wenn

Local Heroes by Penn Kemp is an “eclectic collection” (from the introduction) of pieces celebrating a range of fascinating people from London, Ontario, and the wider Southwestern Ontario region (or Souwesto, a term popularized by James Reaney, one of those honoured in the Tributes section).  A key common thread, in addition to their connection to the region, is their shared “sense of adventure and exploration” (from the introduction).  And through them the work explores London’s evolution “from colonial outpost to vibrant cultural centre” (from the Acknowledgements).  The two longest sections, as noted below, intersect poetry with other forms “the way two branches of the Thames meet at the Forks” in downtown London (from the Acknowledgements).

Local Heroes is divided into six sections:  On Celebrating Several Local Heroes…, Teresa Harris Rides Again, When the Heart Parts, Tributes, Dream Sequins for Alice Munro, and London Local Heroes.  On Celebrating Several Local Heroes… is comprised of Kemp’s short introduction to the work, and one poem, The Sesquicentennial As Celebrated in Souwesto, which is a tribute to the indigenous peoples of Souwesto, the original cultural heroes of this land.  It also provides the foundation on which the rest of the work stands, with its establishment of the primacy of “this beloved place.”

Teresa Harris Rides Again is a most enjoyable, and illuminating, cycle of eleven poems of varying length honouring the youngest child of the well-known Harris family of nineteenth-century London, Ontario.  Teresa Harris, born in 1839, lived a most adventurous life, among other things participating in arduous journeys to regions, such as Tibet, very rarely seen by western women in that era.   This was partly an attempt to escape convention (The Dream Life of Teresa Harris, b. 1839 d. 1928), although she was not entirely successful (What the Ram Said; On What Is Perceived; the latter is a wonderful exploration of the cover photograph). This section is a meeting of poetry and drama, with play-style expression coupled to poetry and narration.  Various voices are represented, including Kemp herself, Teresa, Teresa’s mother Amelia, and St. George Littledale (Teresa’s second husband), whose eulogy for Teresa retrospectively ties together much of the preceding material (St. George’s Eulogy).  Harris was a remarkable woman eminently worthy of celebration, a cause Kemp has undertaken in two plays, although, as Kemp notes in her introduction, poetry is her “first and most beloved medium of expression.”

When the Heart Parts, the longest section, originated as a performance piece concerning the last week in the life of Kemp’s father Jim Kemp (“London artist and mentor of artists in the fifties”; from the Acknowledgements) and lies at the intersection of poetry and sound opera.  Combining stream of consciousness sound poetry, narrative, transcriptions of dialogue, a dream journal, and more conventional poems, this is a very intense and very personal work, simultaneously the core of the book and a bit of an outlier.  The mixture of techniques is quite effective, although hearing the sound poetry in your head may be challenging.  This is not easy reading, but extremely rewarding, the author’s vulnerability serving to irresistibly carry one along through a collage of event chronicle, memories, and overwhelming emotion as Jim, with his family alongside, embarks on the final adventure of this life.

The Tributes section features four major London, Ontario and area arts figures.  The first is visual artist Greg Curnoe (Travelling Lights), tragically killed in 1992 when a pickup truck hit his group of cyclists.  Also celebrated is the Reaney family, the late poet and playwright James Reaney (Drawing in Miniatures); the late poet and short story-writer Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney (Recounted, ReStored, ReStoried); and their son, journalist James Stewart Reaney.

Dream Sequins for Alice Munro is comprised of three poems honouring the Nobel Prize-winning short story-writer from Huron County north of London (Goldilocks Meets Alice in Huron County; Nettle; and Alice(s) on Wonderland).

The final section, London Local Heroes, celebrates pioneering London poetry publisher Brick Books and its principal Kitty Lewis (Follow the Yellow Brick Road); Giller Price-winning short story-writer, novelist and teacher Bonnie Burnard (The Circle Completes, the Net Connects); and the multiple gold medal-winning ice dance team of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (Mirror Neurons).

Topically, Local Heroes presents a layered structure.  This is most obvious in the Teresa Harris Rides Again cycle, with indigenous peoples and the original land composing the deepest stratum (per The Sesquicentennial As Celebrated in Souwesto from the first section; and Teresa’s memories of her indigenous Cook in Choose but Choose Wisely).  The Harris family’s transplanted Victorian England is the next layer:  “A palimpsest is imposed on old-growth//forest as if summoning the Old World to replace place names with their own, erasing other pasts for this newly named road…” (Street Tales, Street Tells); and “a palimpsest of green shire//the Harris family had to transplant here” (Solastalgia).  Finally, covering all, is the modern London, Ontario of the author:  “When jackhammers ring through the layers down, we glimpse//peripheral reminiscence part dreamt, part recollected in shards.” (Street Tales, Street Tells).  In a larger sense, this is also true of the entire work, progressing from the native peoples through Teresa’s Victorian adventures to the sections in honour of twentieth century Souwesto cultural heroes (When the Heart Parts, Tributes, Dream Sequins for Alice Munro, the first two poems from Local London Heroes) and ending with the twenty-first century triumphs of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir (Mirror Neurons).

As mentioned, all of the honourees are united by ties to Souwesto and a common adventurousness and urge to explore in one fashion or another.  In addition, weaving through and further knitting together the different sections are a number of other themes, three of which are home, death and transition, and memory.  Starting with the home thread, all of the honoured figures are from Southwestern Ontario, with the Harris family and their peers grafting on not just English traditions (“patterned upon London, England//like a pale shadow of the mother country.”, Why Teresa Harris) but trees, gardens and place names (Street Tales, Street Tells; Solastalgia; Telling Tales) to try and mould their adopted land into their idea of home.  Teresa herself went to the other side of the world to “escape//the confines of colonial London” (Why Teresa Harris?) only to find, in the end, “familiar voices are calling me//back, calling me home.” (Choose but Choose Wisely).  Of note as well is that the author, following Teresa’s pattern, returned to her London, Ontario, roots in 2001 after being away for thirty-five years, as is pointed out in the introduction.

Winding through When the Heart Parts is the voyage home of Jim Kemp’s spirit, a journey prefigured in a poem the author was working on the day the call came that her father was in hospital.  This poem concerned the Ka (the part of the soul in ancient Egyptian mythology representing the life force) and featured the lines “ ‘Ka, call of the dead//on their sail home.’ ” (February 25.).  As Jim lies dying, the author reads to him from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is intended in part to guide the consciousness from death through to the next rebirth (March 1.; March 3.).

In another instance of this theme James Reaney “returned here to//beloved Souwesto, to the field//and his Perth County farmhouse.” (Drawing in Miniatures).  Finally, the author meets Alice Munro in her home town (Goldilocks Meets Alice in Huron County) and her city apartment (Nettle), and Munro’s own celebrated works focus on “the upright citizens of a small Souwesto town//whose truths Alice has been dealing for decades” (Goldilocks Meets Alice in Huron County).

Death and transition also figure prominently throughout the work.  Most notably of course When the Heart Parts is an in-depth exploration of Jim Kemp’s passing and his family’s journey with him in his final days.  In addition, as Kemp notes in her introduction, many of the pieces are eulogies.  But this stream also manifests in a number of other ways:  the death of William John Scott, Teresa Harris’ first husband (The Dream Life of Teresa Harris, b. 1839 d. 1928); her second husband, St. George Littledale’s, transformative experience with a ram he was unable to shoot (What the Ram Said); Harris’ overall arc from Victorian Ontario to the wilds of Tibet and back; the exploration of Teresa’s passing (Choose But Choose Wisely; St. George’s Eulogy); Jim Kemp’s spiritual explorations (February 25.; March 5.); the explicit portrayal of Greg Curnoe’s tragic death (Travelling Lights); and James Stewart Reaney’s retirement (On His Retirement).

Memory is another important theme.  The allure and challenges are explicitly discussed in Solastalgia:  “Old lays, old lies surround and comfort,//surround and drown the sound of voices I wish I could hear,//voices now dissolved to ether, to the vagaries of memory//recalling memory, lost in translation.”  It is, naturally, central to all of the work’s tributes, but is also critical to St. George’s memories of Teresa (St. George’s Eulogy); Jim Kemp’s own memories (Knock, Knock); the memories of Jim’s father (March 2.); the recollections of Jim’s wife of dealing with the initial stage of his final health crisis (February 25., March 2.); “trolling//the midden of memory” with Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney (Recounted, ReStored, ReStoried); and the call to James Stewart Reaney to write his memoirs (On His Retirement).

The set of poems in Local Heroes, is, Kemp says in her introduction “dear to my heart”, a sentiment that is most evident as we make acquaintance with an intriguing cast of characters from Southwestern Ontario’s cultural history.  The two longest features are the trek of the remarkable Teresa Harris to Tibet and back, and Jim Kemp’s agonizing final journey. This a work of intersectionality and varied technique, with a range of emotion from affection and humour to deep sorrow, its eclecticism bound together by overarching themes including home, death and transition, and memory.