A review by Helen Carmichael
I’d like to say that I had mapped and planned my presence at an afternoon in the company of two Canadian poets celebrating Earth Day and Canada’s National Poetry Month here in Vancouver, sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets. But in reality I discovered it online with barely enough time to leap in my car and race to the venue, leaving a trail of half-baked childcare arrangements and birthday party pickup plans in my wake.
The trigger that catapulted me from my quiet West Coast Sunday lunchtime to the Canadian Memorial United Church Centre for Peace mere blocks from my home was one of the poets: Penn Kemp. The University of Western Ontario’s current writer-in-residence, Penn Kemp, has been dubbed a “one woman literary industry.” I first experienced her writing through a poem from her groundbreaking collection Trance Form (1976, reprinted by Pendas Productions in 2006), which appeared in the very first edition of the Goddess Pages, and had a profound effect on my view of how words (in particular their sound forms) could fall together to invoke deep meditation. Her writing also spoke to me of a certain formless connection with aspects of the sacred feminine. In other words, I was hooked.
Penn hosts Gathering Voices, an eclectic radio show on Radio Western, and her residency project is Ecco poetry, a genre-bending compilation of poems “devoted to our MotherWorld” culminating in a book, a CD and DVD release.
Banking on a fairly relaxed start time, I made it to the reading event themed "Tempering the Climate," sliding into my seat with seconds to spare. Penn had teamed up with Susan McCaslin from Fort Langley, BC. Susan is a poet, educator, scholar, workshop facilitator, and author of fourteen volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Lifting the Stone (Seraphim Editions, 2007).
As we grouped around their comfy chairs, Penn’s sound poems started to bubble, fizz and soothe, as, speaking in tandem with Susan, she wove a soundscape in voices. She then moved on to the topic of ‘Fair Trade’, through a mouth watering poem that explored the sensations of walking a tightrope of temptation when we are offered a cornucopia of succulent delicacies perhaps produced under less than ideal conditions, at every supermarket aisle.*
Gaia was ever-present. “Nature for me isn’t just a mirror of the divine, but divinity herself, the outer manifestation of the matrix from which everything flows,” explains Susan. “She is a sacred field if we can shut off for even a few moments our tendency to reduce her to an extension of ourselves.” She digs deep into some of the old myths for a holistic approach to the earth, a sense of wonder and awe found in the stories about Gaia, Demeter, Isis, Ishtar and others. “I find these ancient cosmologies as relevant as ever, since they reveal the earth’s response to human efforts to circumscribe her,” Susan says.
Meanwhile Penn has just launched Luminous Entrance: a Sound Opera for Climate Change Action on DVD, dedicated to “our beloved Gaia in all her guises.” She also has an intrigue with ancient mythology that has led her on journeys, in particular in search of Black Madonnas and to Egypt. She told me that for her, “the Black Madonna represents the Gaian power of the sacred feminine, a protective force.”
The two poets first met when Penn interviewed Susan on Gathering Voices, and Susan recalled that Penn’s first question was, “Are you a Gnostic?” which she says “kind of threw me for a loop”. Susan has meditated on sayings from the Gnostic gospels since she first discovered them in the early ‘80s, and Gnostic allusions and myths inform her most recent book, Lifting the Stone. “Of course, the rituals and beliefs of these groups were diverse, but the recovered gospels offer a picture of Jesus and Mary as awakened ones, visionaries,” she suggests. “Mary Magdalene in these traditions is not a repentant whore, but Jesus’ most advanced disciple, a figure of wisdom, and the Apostle of the Apostles.” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (discovered in the nineteenth century) suggests that other more patriarchal groups of Christians in the early centuries were threatened by this experience of Mary as a wisdom teacher, Susan adds.
Susan’s two Mary Magdalene poems will appear in her upcoming book, Demeter Goes Skydiving. Here is one of them, reprinted with permission:
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
You are the light you have been moving towards,
said Mary, a woman of intimacies,
who spoke in silence an interior speaking,
high to low, in to out, leaf to branch.
Said Miriam, a woman of intimacies,
cored, yoked, interwoven with matter,
low to high, out to in, branch to leaf:
There is no sin in the waking world.
for we are cored, yoked, interwoven with matter,
yet all that is composed shall be decomposed;
there is no sin in the waking world;
a babe strung in a hammock shoots into the night sky.
Yet all that is composed shall be decomposed.
So Peter and Andrew repudiated the woman’s words,
while a babe in a hammock shot into the night sky
and emptied herself as from a tomb.
Peter and Andrew repudiated the woman’s words,
whose hair swept by anointing stars,
who emptied herself as from a tomb
becoming awe and the fully human
whose hair swept by anointing stars,
who spoke in silence, an interior speaking,
becoming awe and the fully human:
You are the light you have been moving towards.
The presence of the Gnostic Sophia or Divine Wisdom indicates that before the western church solidified its doctrines, the divine feminine had an important role to play in these less patriarchal, less hierarchical communities, Susan explained.
One of Penn’s poems on Mary Magdalene appeared in a previous edition of the Goddess Pages (Recall: Autumn 2007 issue).
The reading flowed naturally into a workshop on ‘Gathering Peace,” which asked: How can peace be active? What form would it take? How can we express it in art and action? How can we develop our creativity to promote peace in ourselves, in our families, in our community and in the world?
We were introduced to the glosa – a form of poem that takes its starting point from a beloved poem or section from a poem. By way of example Susan read her epic Xanadu Two, borrowing lines from Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, which describes cataclysmic eruptions and tumult on earth with pronounced parallels to our current ecological predicament. For instance:
“Pine beetles, apocalyptic,
infect once-thriving Cariboo trees.
Tar sands’ rank emissions hover
in a landscape’s angry howl;
prophecies of war continue,
glaciers peeling back new land
ripe for further exploitation
of our mother Gaia’s house,
guarding ice’s treasury that ran
through caverns measureless to man.”
Excerpt from Xanadu Two by Susan McCaslin
And here in the original poem:
“In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
With participants engaged and energized by the spirit of Gaia, the poets went on their way, continuing their tour. “I'm an activist poet ... poetry is the way I can spread the word and inspire action!” says Penn. “A poem can itself be a political act, and words and shaped sounds can be actions in the world that transform people’s lives or contribute to a shift in consciousness,” Susan adds. Well they certainly inspired me. I’m deeply grateful that I heeded the call to step out of my sleepy Sunday routine, and wake up.
Poem for Peace in many voices
Calm came clear
early one morning Calm come clear
before things started of cloud
Calm came at noon Calm come
A red bird perched clear
on a black bough of cloud
in blazing sun
Calm came one night Calm come clear
stretching as cats do, of cloud
constant stretch and change.
Flowers brightened Calm come clear
as the house slept. of cloud
Now calm come Now calm come
in the face of clear of
Excerpt from Celebrating Tree in Souwesto
Mother trees surround us, the very
few left over from original forest we
long paved over, old rotten stumps
that settlers burnt to clear their land.
Trees knows their season, their reason for
being. How each tree reaches out to be-
come World Tree. We have so much to
learn from not living on but with our place.
We who live in this Forest City must ensure
a name never replaces the reality of canopy.
Long may our trees flourish for we can only
prosper with our elder brothers, our mothers.
(Souwesto is South Western Ontario)
Having had a taste of Susan’s writing, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press) when it launches in spring 2011. For more information see: www.susanmccaslin.ca
Penn Kemp’s Luminous Entrance: a sound opera for climate change DVD is available from Pendas Productions, 525 Canterbury Road, London, Ontario N6G2N5 Canada. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Penn Kemp gives workshops on how to invoke and connect with the energy of Gaia: see http://brideswell.com/content/environment/the-great-returning-inhabiting-our-motherworld/ :
* Read Penn’s poem Fare Trade in this issue of Goddess Pages