Poems by Will Kemp
Poems by Will Kemp have appeared in a wide range of national journals, newspapers and magazines, including: Acumen; Aesthetica; Ambit; Envoi; The French Literary Review; The Guardian; The Interpreter’s House; Iota; Magma; The North; Obsessed With Pipework; Orbis; Other Poetry; Poetry News; The Rialto; The SHOp; Smith’s Knoll; The New European; The Times.
Poems available on-line
Poems by Will Kemp available on line include:
Fountains Abbey – see: Guardian Poetry Workshop Monday 9 February 2009
The pirate inside – see: Poetry Society Members Stanza Competition 2011
After my father died – see: Abegail Morley Featured Poet 23 May 2012
Guitar – see: Guardian Poetry Workshop 30 May 2008
Dear Ugly – see: Poetry News Winter 2010
The poets who watched the sky at night – see: Poetry News 28 September 2015
English Journey – see: Poetry Society Members Stanza Competition 2014
July 1976 – see: Poetry Society Members Stanza Competition 2013
GW Hurtle, Family Butcher - see: Danny Earl Simmons' Poetry Blog 2 December 2015
Driving to work at 5am while listening to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor – see: The Saturday Poem The Guardian 16 April 2016
Other selected Poems
A selection of other poems by Will Kemp appears below.
Taking the dog out
The village takes its time to form,
as a clinking chain-lead draws me
into the deep blue paper of the night,
where touches of chalk mark gleaming
roofs, the church’s limestone tower.
High above, an arctic moon:
mottled white and oyster-grey, far away
from pub-talk of tax, law, driveways
parked with four-by-fours. It frosts the lane,
limes the surrounding hills and fields.
By a gap in the broken hedge,
Evie inspects her patch – noticing perhaps
those hollow woods beyond the farm,
whitewashed land and barns – then looks
at me to start the way back. But tonight
I step right through, onto a sled
with pelts of lynx and snowshoe hare,
hauled by a pack across this open veld
sloped on either side with dark firs
grazed by elk or caribou, headed for
the tundra of the great white North;
frozen air streams against my face
as we slice over the hushed Mackenzie –
where no salmon leap or drivers holler
above log booms rolling way down-river –
whose ice core now shoulders
this ghost rush towards the Pole Star
of an oil lamp by a trading station,
so that only our tracks lead back
to the pale field-hedge, cars and walls.
You can hear it now, long and low,
as the moon clears
and the great unknown spreads out
in silvered folds,
the frozen lake a star-sprinkled glow,
stalagmite trees pointing north
like Inuit whalebone spears,
where the shadows seem to move
with something faint –
through the powder snow –
that percussion of panting
with padded feet.
Harvesting at night
That low hum in the darkness becomes
a chatter throughout this prairie field –
the combine’s arm extended like a claw,
long lights floating with corndust stars;
the driver lit up in his cabin too,
as if suspended in mid-air, or peering out
some submersible on the ocean floor,
watching for uncharted wrecks through
a shaken snow-globe of drifting silt,
where a deep sea fish might think him
a lost crustacean searching for a mate –
possibly the loneliest creature it ever saw.
I wake at four, right arm dangled artfully overhead,
left foot behind the other knee in a horizontal pirouette,
as if I had not lain awake half the night fretting
over the job and pension, but dreaming of ballet.
Perhaps it is just my body telling me to quit –
that instead of walking into the office after nine,
I should carry on to the School for the Performing Arts,
where I will stand in a great room walled by mirrors,
a middle-aged man looking lost in a white leotard
among the nine year old girls wearing fairy tu-tus,
then strain not to topple over while balancing on one leg
as an elderly lady plays a jangling piano from behind
her specs, and another stamps a walking stick
on the wooden floor, shouting, Andante, andante!
No longer will I see my sagging jowls or the paunch
that passes these days for a mid-riff, but the gaunt tone
of a gymnast who must live off a diet of mackerel
and spinach to glide swan-like over the silent boards,
so that all remains of my occupation, whatever it was,
is the series of taunts I will suffer each night
from my former colleagues on the way to the station –
an ordeal I will come through perhaps by thinking
of the framed photos that will now adorn the lounge –
that bow at Covent Garden, those flowers at the Kirov,
and the one of which I’m definitely most proud –
arms flung wide, head thrown back –
as I take off in a great leap of tighted legs
through the spotlight of an otherwise darkened stage.
Lying awake at 4am, I consider the social and physical characteristics of Hell
The darkness much the same, but with a red glimmer
on the cliffs where the new arrivals are bull-dozed off
by rat-faced demons from a work by Hieronymus Bosch.
It comes as no surprise to see the neighbours here,
my lawyer too, thriving amid the sobs and cries of woe,
though I could do without that welcoming party of MPs
extolling the rewards and virtues of hard work.
And for that matter, colleagues I tried so hard to like,
three women on a hen-night, peeing in the street,
some hippies singing peace songs round a camp-fire –
because this is Hell: orange rivers of molten rock
and searing flames – no need to light another fire at all.
No dogs either, no trees or sky. Just the black smoke
of burning tyres rolling across deserts of ash, basalt rock,
where the damned stoke vast furnaces then trudge
down dead-end streets to a deluge of Saturday night TV.
No small comfort, then, to behold kings who founded
great abbeys to pray for their souls, the father of my ex –
still shouting – a board on his back saying, KICK ME.
Which makes me think, maybe there is a God after all.
The things she gave me
I still have the things she gave me,
hidden in a secret place.
Letters tell how we used to be,
photos let me touch her face.
Hidden in a secret place,
an old tape brings back the past.
Photos let me touch her face,
the poems she wrote let love last.
An old tape brings back the past.
Letters tell how we used to be.
The poems she wrote let love last.
I still have the things she gave me
The light on the water at Rhenen
It was a Saturday in July –
the sky pale but open wide;
typically Dutch, you said,
an unhurried cloud passing by.
We sat on rough grass,
you in my sweater, if I remember,
bicycle wheels still spinning,
ticking, by the water’s edge.
The river slapped and plopped
again and again. Further out,
it seemed to glitter silver
the way leaves do after rain.
We watched a kahn inch forward,
lugging coal to Koblenz or Köln,
a line of shirts in surrender
from bridge to stern.
I put my head on your lap,
you fed me apricot Limburg Flan –
but only after I’d said
You explained polders, dykes,
the need to maintain the water level.
I kept quiet about the way
your father looked at me that morning.
I once heard that every life
has a point before which there is
always a looking forward,
afterwards a looking back.
These are the things I think of,
whenever I think of that.
The end of the world
I am last at the office tonight, about to ping
a draft final report into the abyss of cyberspace.
The rows of desks have been left as they were,
the phones completely quiet, dead perhaps,
as if I was the sole survivor of a nuclear error,
all my colleagues vapourised in a cloud of dust.
Shortly I will leave for the car park, recording
my time of departure in the book on reception
like an entry at a funeral, then step out onto
the wet, still lit street, where there will be
no policeman on his beat, no smokers hunched
like conspirators outside The Wig And Mitre.
Without another car in sight, I will drive past
the outskirts of this northern town, stopping
at the garage for the milk you need for a cake,
helping myself to as much Premium Unleaded
as I like – and maybe some Mars Bars, crisps,
papers and barbeque charcoal since I’m at it.
Clutching my stash in one hand while waving
to the security cameras with the other, I will
at last head home – though starting to see now
the door will not open to KD Lang or Handel
playing throughout the house, nor will there be
any hint of the spicy noodles you had for lunch,
because this is the end of the world – that time
prophets with long beards and shaking fists
always said would come: no point in anything
anymore, everyone gone. No mug by the sink,
no note on the fridge; no chance either to ask
how your day was, or even say good-bye.
It starts with a spit jutting into the tide
to form a strand that won’t wash away,
the land little more than sea, a place for
seafarers to stop, wrecked, find at least
they can fish from this spot, or vanish
into the mist by the shore; but by now
it’s the seventeenth century, and that
clump of shacks has become a village,
harbour, port – with fields drained
by polders, dykes, windmills – and
that port is a city, and that city rules
the world, and its ships are returning
from the Orient and Dutch East Indies,
laden with china, spices and pearls,
and its painters are doing lobsters,
lemons and carpets; and a girl stands
by a window pouring milk into a bowl.
I scoured the atlas for Nassau,
stole a bow-tie from my father’s drawer.
In code, listed the bullies at school –
then bumped them off one by one
with a silencer made from toilet roll tubes.
I wanted to be you.
That dark look, the chiselled jaw.
Fluent in French, a natural at skiing.
Adept at roulette, the quick-step;
seducer of beautiful women.
Only you could get away
with smoothing, Well, hello Puss,
or jaunt into the control room
to defuse a nuclear bomb, commenting on
the best way to serve a Dom Perignon.
One day I’d breeze through
the lab with Q, use a magnetic watch
to unzip the dress of a swooning girl.
Or just have a quip ready for Gary Murray
as he pasted my face into the playground wall.
The afternoon before you flew back
we cycled across Midsummer Common
then took a boat
through the unfenced fields,
the grey-green willows
of Grantchester Meadows.
You sat taking in
the swallows skimming
winking pools, their turns
like boomerang spins
about the reeds and shallows.
Nobody came or went,
except a dragonfly.
It lighted on the side,
body a bamboo tail pinned
with biplane wings and goggled eyes.
Neither of us moved
as it rested to refuel –
with light or food, we couldn’t tell –
glowing coral to tinsel green,
purring through the colours of a rainbow.
It only stayed a minute or two,
then set off in a muslin whir,
a blue flame ghosting across the water –
into the light
and the rest of summer.
The trees near Veenendaal
I’m sitting back in the garden at dusk,
low sunlight giving way to blue,
like that time we cycled through
cornfields, you in a floral dress,
shadows long ahead. I weaved
round yours, you sang Eternal Flame.
The next day we made love
in a wood of young ash, oak; stayed
there all afternoon. I remember
the way we lay, the leaves
already brown, how they sifted
with the breeze. And now I wonder
if you ever went back – to listen
to the trees in evening light, or sit
and think how much they’ve grown.
The missing girl
There, by the river, a shawl with patterns of flowers –
Persephone’s since she was a girl.
Demeter held it as if cradling a sleeping child –
hands closed like buds, mouth a little o –
at once breathed in hibiscus, jasmine, rose;
recalled those first steps in the lemon grove.
Fruit. Persephone always loved fruit.
Apple, melon, plum: names learnt by heart,
practised like a song. Bluebell, primrose too,
all those questions on how leaves and petals grow.
In no time she flourished: took cuttings from ash
and willow; could paint a green field yellow.
She was a natural, down-to-earth too – laughed
as she sprinkled seeds, helped ladybirds to leaves.
Just couldn’t be kept in: would follow
the flight of swallows over hills, vales, fields,
forever finding new paths and streams.
But she’d return.
The one time she did go missing, Demeter found
her on ground lit blue by the moon – decided
then to make the shawl (even though
in truth the girl was always a little hot);
at once Persephone draped it round and hugged
her mother – then promptly asked
if she could now stay out till dawn.
If she would only answer her name,
Demeter could hold her again – touch that head
the way cows nudge their young to water.
Instead, she stared at the river, remembering
stories, dances, walks:
her smile, her songs, her warmth.
Such is the profusion of intricate notes
in this wedding march for the organ
that only an octopus could be expected
to touch all the keys and pedals at once –
tentacle crossing over tentacle, tips looping
this way and that to pull out the stops –
though the octopus concerned would be
no ordinary mollusc from the sea-bed,
but one trained at the Royal Academy
in London or Stockholm
before joining a distinguished orchestra
such as the Berlin Stadtskapelle,
always looking so refined in those tails
and that white crepe bow-tie,
his head a grey balloon
nodding pensively in time with the tune
then acknowledging the applause
and calls of encore without a sound –
for this octopus would be nothing
if not an octopus of few words –
finally sliding off sideways
during the standing ovation,
with only a trail of brine across the boards
to show he’d been there at all.
Shopping with Elvis
I do the choosing, he pushes the trolley. Found it
embarrassing at first – white glitter catsuit,
lapels bigger than the flaps on a cardboard box.
No dress sense at all. And that dancing in the aisle,
expecting everyone to do the Jailhouse Rock.
It’s the way he is. Thank God people think
he’s a tribute act. But last week one old lady knew.
Spotted him noting a special on some slippers.
Ya can do any thin bu lay offa ma blue suede shoes,
he started, off again. That were Elvis, I heard,
whisking him away, as her friend gasped: Ye never!
Wish he wouldn’t do that. Though I quite like it
when he leans over to the check-out girl,
lowers his shades and says, Thanyaverymuch.
Fishing with Billy Collins
You warmed to the idea over a bottle of Merlot
sipped pensively in your study
with its angle-poise lamp, the ring-stained desk
more accustomed to coffee,
though it took a while longer to decide
where to go – you bidding for the absolute calm
of Lake Huron, me the white water
below Elk River Falls –
a matter settled in the end by the toss of a coin,
with you stating your preference for
this method of resolution
to the former practice of pistols at dawn.
It came as no surprise that hooks, floats, flies
had never been on your list of things to buy,
or for that matter, that neither of us had ever
gone fishing, though my father did try once
before I ran back to my mother.
No surprise either that you stopped
the camper van, then eased into a description
of the feather-soft yellows to be found
in this part of New England during the fall,
or that we arrived after dark, too late
to assemble the rods or man the canoe.
Too late in fact to do anything
but lay either side of a camp-fire
fizzing with books neither of us liked –
you hands behind head, feet up
on a log like the end of a sofa,
reassuring me that fishing was
rarely about fishing, and what the hell –
maybe it was as well to continue
with the day job and just look at the stars.
I was unsure if the sky was lilac-blue
or blue-lilac, though you figured
neither was a good call since it brought
to mind the coffee pots of ranchers in films.
Then quiet. The quiet that must accompany
deep-sea divers stepping onto the sea-bed
light as astronauts on the moon.
I wanted to ask how you’d like
to be remembered, if at all, thinking how
the Apache or Sioux might have named you
Heart of a Bear, Watcher of Clouds,
but by now I was drifting off,
falling into a dream that at first light
you slipped into the lake
as if it were the great pool of English itself
and had already swum a long way out,
your head a tiny speck spearheading
an enormous V of water
before finally disappearing out of sight.
The startled deer
She bolted from the brake,
a rush of brown over the road
and into the winter sun.
I stopped in time
to see the velvet head,
black flecks on her back and stilted legs,
as she eased to a tip-toe trot,
then vaulted the ditch and hedge.
At once she was gone.
Though that outstretched leap
stayed suspended in mid-air.
The way she landed too,
light and soft, already moving off
towards the cover of the woods.
And now all around
when men with spears, moving
through the light-streamed dark,
must have first paused
by some pale green dots of ash or elm
and felt the need to capture
those n-shaped leaps
on the limestone walls of caves.
The painters who studied clouds
From my window I am watching the sky drift by
in white and grey across the blue,
with dabs of lemon-yellow here and there,
where the sun glows a while
but never quite comes into view.
It reminds me of the painters who studied clouds,
no camera to catch the changing scene,
sitting alone in a field or tied
to a mast in some howling storm,
rolling sea and sky into one great swirl.
How quickly they must have worked
in silverpoint or chalk,
sometimes snowblind from taking in the light,
hatching rounded shapes with shade
to give the sky its full-blown form and tone,
at others cursing it for cirrus clouds,
moving slow as ocean whales,
to let a sweep of wash
beach on the wet paper
or seep into a distant summer haze.
I wonder then if they too wondered
at Constable’s Study of Clouds,
with its bulk of greys and half-greys,
windswept with hurried brushes,
sailing across and out the frame,
seeing how he must have looked and looked,
until he understood
the light, tone and shapes as one –
then took them down at once,
knowing in a moment they’d be gone.