A Blog about Poetry

What else? You've heard me say how fantastic the poems of William Kemmett are. Let's take a look inside the cover of his new book, Black Oil. I'm sure you'll agree with me, this is not your father's Oldsmobile.

The opening poem is a surrealist knock-out. And it's called:

The Bible Salesman

She had a spider
With a genus too complicated
To remember: Amazonia something
Or other. It was as large
As a poodle, and she walked it
On a leash of braided spider-web.

She had it de-fanged and neutered
For its own good, she said. Also
She had half its legs amputated
So she could walk it at a reasonable
Pace. She was an atheist, she said.
But bought a bible from me, mainly,
I think because she was lonely
And needed my ear.

This wasn't the easiest sale
I ever made: the spider sitting
On my lap; the endless photos of her
And the spider at her husband's grave-
Site; the photos of her with her grand-
Children feeding the spider by hand.
And her with the spider taking a shower

She never explained to me who took
These pictures, and I never asked. She
Did buy the deluxe model of the bible
Along with the Lives of the Saints.
It wasn't too long after that I gave
Up selling bibles, and went into
Selling shoes; and I was the best
Shoe salesman the company ever had.
The owner of the firm who hired me
Predicted I'd be good at it: said,
"If you can sell bibles, you can
Sell anything!"

Kemmett, William. Black Oil. Boston: Igneus/deadCpress, 2010. Print.

It's not just a matter of unusual images and strange juxtapositions here. That would merely make the poem interesting. What makes it amazing is the impeccable sense of narrative timing. That and, one would guess, a judicious amount of careful trimming of detail down to the essential. That is a hallmark in most of William Kemmett's writing: words turned and lathed until the subtlest turn of shadow reveals a backstory so deep you wonder how many lifetimes it encompasses.

New Hampshire Poet Laureate, W. E. Butts writes, "From the opening poem in Black Oil, "The Bible Salesman," which features a lonely atheist who walks an enormous spider on a leash, we realize we're in the hands of a pragmatist who embraces what life's ironies might teach us, especially what we're afraid to learn. These are gracefully written poems that are nevertheless wrought with urgent tension. William Kemmett recognizes how at odds our modern culture has become from the natural world that would sustain it, and his poetry seeks to engage that world and note, in its most minute details, what is essential. The meditations, reflections and undaunted observations chronicle an incisive consideration of what it means to be human. Imbued with Yankee wit, Zen simplicity and imagistic surprise, some of these poems are strikingly concise and direct, others offer up complex allegories, while as a whole this remarkable collection is deeply evocative. Reading William Kemmett reminds us what poetry is capable of."

Happily, I am responsible for the first appearance in print of a number of poems from this book, having been poetry editor for The Iowa Source, Fact of the Universe, and The Contemporary Review. I felt from the beginning I was helping an unusual and important voice find an audience, and I am proud to have done so.

Peter Kidd, William Kemmett's publisher for Black Oil and a number of his other books, wrote to me and said, "Just came back from a quick trip to Florida, where I spent a couple days with Bill Kemmett. Sitting on his patio under the stars, enjoying his cacti, which only bloom at night, and for one day each blossom, Bill spoke glowingly of you. He shared some of your poems with me. Bill and I have been buddies since the early days of Stone Soup in Boston, circa 1970. Am enclosing a copy of Black Oil for your entertainment. Dick Martin is the editor and publisher of Igneus/deadCpress, but the book has been a cooperative effort of several people, including our mutual pal Wally Butts. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have, frankly it's the best book of poems I've read in years.

"Kemmett is indeed, at 74, the only poet in America who is down to just having to write the poems, while the rest of us act as midwives. But it has always been that way. I've had the pleasure of publishing his previous three books, Flesh of a New Moon, Hole in the Heart, and Bradford Poems, which grew from years and years of Bill and I meeting at the Bradford Café on Mass Ave in Cambridge, a total dive for drunks and heroin users, before attending Stone Soup on Monday nights at T.T. The Bears. I find it uplifting that Bill and his work continue to grow, as the years fly by for us all."