Review of Rick Kempa's Keeping the Quiet

Keeping the Quiet by Rick Kempa
Bellowing Ark Press, 2008 (83 pages)
ISBN: 978-0-944920-62-6

Full disclosure: I've met Rick Kempa. I interviewed for a full-time instructor position at Wyoming Community College where he teaches composition and philosophy. And though Rick wasn't on the hiring committee, after meeting me at an open lunch, he went out of his way to volunteer to treat wandering me to dinner that evening (on the school's credit card of course!). I really appreciated that act of compassion, to help make a stranger feel welcome in a strange town. When I later ordered his book, what I found was that compassion on the page in his words and stories. Keeping the Quiet is a chronicle of some of his own wandering and his compassion.

“Quiet” describes Kempa's style well: plain-spoken, soft and not too wordy, saying what is necessary and nothing more. Like me, Kempa comes from the midwest, Chicago, but he's a Southwest writer through and through. But saying he's a 'Nature poet' isn't quite accurate. To compare him to other poets who have been given (also inaccurately) that label, he doesn't have any of Gary Snyder's sentence fragments or Buddhist language, nor Wendell Berry's warm Christian wisdom, though he does have both of their solemness and wonder.

There are two main personas in this book. The first is The Wanderer. In his younger incarnation, some of the wandering, backpacking and hitchhiking is done alone, some with friends, some with strangers, and this young Kempa always seems more at home outside than in. When he does wander into town, his observations of the human world, of the humans, feels like the coyote looking in the window. There's an older Wanderer too, not so alone perhaps, describing his meetings with other wanderers, listening to buskers and picking up hitchhikers, helping them along in their own travels. The philosophy of the Wanderer can be found in poems like “To Know The Trail.” Here’s the first two stanzas:

The trail has mind of its own.
It has the mind of its maker.
If you walk it long enough,
you will come to know its mind.
If you walk it long enough,
you will come to know yourself.
The second persona, appearing in the middle sections of the book, I call The Witness. These poems shift from the 'outside' to the inside, to family and friends. Some of these poems were actually published in medical journals like Healing Muse and the Journal of the American Medical Association. In them, he chronicles the care for, and passing, of both his grandmother, and then his mother. There is an, inevitable I suppose, sense of helplessness that caregiving involves, and more than anything maybe being a witness means being a rememberer. Here's “Bar the Door”:

I lean over you because I have to,
thread one hand through the tubes
to find your hand?swollen, cool,
but not cold. With the other
I stroke your forehead (the skin
sloughs off) in a way that you would not allow
if you were here.

Thank god you are not here,
having heard my plea the morning
after the first surgery, at the onset
of an ordeal so fierce that
not even your fierce will
could help you, to go somewhere else,
leave your body to the machines,
technicians, enter a room
of your own furnishing
and bare the door, let
the fiber of our love
shield you...

Thank god you'll never know
what it's like in here.

The use of present tense brings the reader into the hospital room with Kempa. It’s a memory, yes, but Kempa isn’t just ‘telling’ us what happened, he brings us in close enough to feel it. And not only is he bearing witness for us, but also for the person he’s speaking to. She’s gone, even if her body is still there. Kempa, by describing to her what’s left, gives her permission to keep going. The value of the Witness: to allow us to see ourselves, to remind us of the good things we shouldn’t forget, and the bad things we need to let go.

Kempa is also an essayist, and a good one, and I hope Bellowing Ark or some other publishing company will consider a collection of his essays (For examples, check out the links on Kempa's page on the Wyoming Writers Wiki?just google his name). The most unique and interesting thing Kempa is doing is exploring the world between poetry and the personal essay, demonstrating how much the two (can) have in common. His most powerful poems, like “Nothing Between Us Now But Love,” are told in this poem/essay hybrid. In it, Kempa is driving his mother down through Moab, Utah. She's in the later stages of dementia, and he's been caring for her, but is taking her to stay with another relative. Something about the trip, the music, the land, allows his mother to come back for a period of lucidity:

Then, as stunning and as chilling as the white flank of that great peak, a contrast of a different sort assails me: for her, there will be no? there is no imprint being made. No chance for us of the rare pleasure that connects tow people forever: the shared memory of a day lived well together, a bond as unique as any in the universe. There will be only aloneness, hers and mine, and I feel then a flutter of the unrest that so often rises in her? this is not acceptable!

“Mom,” I tell her, “it may well be that you will forget this afternoon, but I don’t want you to worry because I am going to remember it for both of us.”

Her hand reaches over and clasps my sleeve, and her voice rings with relief. “Oh would you please? That would mean so much.”

This poem, and others, goes beyond the idea of the poem capturing a 'moment': there's a story being told here. The paragraphs are in 'prose,' no line breaks, but the language is controlled, paired down, 'plain,' the emotions building under the surface. An essay might explore the history of his relationship with his mother and how she gradually developed signs of dementia. An essay could, and probably would, be much longer, and still be good, but Kempa the Poet doesn't want that. This is still a 'moment,' that speaks for itself. No, or little, explanation necessary.

The collection ends with a Wanderer poem, “Plenum,” another poem/essay hybrid, and one of my favorites. I have inside information: Rick told me that he originally arranged the poems in chronological order, but that his Bellowing Ark editor, Robert Ward, re-visioned it, and I agree with Ward's idea to end with this poem, leaving us still wandering (I just mis-typed and said 'wondering'). Even if, or as, Kempa in this collection settles (down) and starts and cares for a family, he is still wandering (and wondering!). Caring for family members, though placing us in a more stable place, does not mean an end to wandering. It is part of that wandering.

John Yohe is a writing teacher at Jackson Community College and is the author of What Nothing Reveals (Ann Street Press). (

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761