Reading Penn Kemp and the World: The Role of Poetry in Civic Planning

Let’s follow a word from the world, as it moves into our bodies and then through them into our social lives. Here is a well.

A well, yes. It is a hole in the skin of the earth, from which water is coaxed to evaporate by an organic process that builds itself around it as it is drawn into the sky by the sun. We might call it a “welling” of “life”, but that’s the same thing. So, there we have our word. Let’s look at a couple variations, to see how wells change with context and distribute this power. Here it is again, coupled with a stone.

There’s a lot happening here, but for the moment let’s look at the bunchgrass and the stone. The bunchgrass is catching water (there’s more of the bunchgrass below ground than you see here above), and the stone is (again) a well. In short, the bunchgrass is using the stone as its well, amplifying its own welling by gaining the extra water that flows off the stone. The process makes the stone a hole in earth, sky and water. It means that the stone wells, not only with water but with grass. So, there you have it, a word (well) that opens a pair of doubled energies, linked to each other: grass to stone and stone to grass, through the doorway of the energy of welling. Now for a related pair of examples of the well.

Here the stone has reached a steady state with the welling life around it, and is completely covered with a very healthy community of lichens. You might call it a steady flow, but because it holds in place the proper word is “lake.” This stone lake is providing heat for the lichens. The word for a stone lake is an “island”: an eye of land in an otherwise unbroken plane of vision. However, the inverse is also true: the stone (which is a well) is a hole in the surrounding life. This hole creates space, which allows the stone (the well) and the lichen to exist together — all in the space the stone made. Just so, does the stone well in a further dimension of complexity. It’s a well like the clump of grass at the top of this post …

… but of a different level of experience. Here, too:

Look at the waves crashing on the shore!

Let’s call this thickening of welling through increasingly deepened and extended levels of complexity in embedded and shared life a new class of word (while remembering that it carries all that came before.) This word can be “poetry” or even “city.” Here’s how this works: in poetry, we could say that each word is a well (as we have seen above), but, since these wells are in human bodies, and are made ultimately of sound, I think it’s fair to call them mouths. This, then, is a mouth:

Yes, it is talking. In its own language.

There’s lots to read from it, but let’s leave that for another day and concentrate on how this works as a way of reading a poem. To demonstrate, here’s the opening of the poem “Silicon Valley” by the Canadian poet Penn Kemp:

Do you remember the days
when silicon was an element
central to sand, the sense of
grit between your toes by
the river

Want more? Read on by clicking here, and watch the glorious video by clicking here.  

Look at how the mouths work in Penn’s passage.

Do you remember the days
when silicon was an element
central to sand, the sense of
grit between your toes by
the river

We’re used to calling these mouths nouns, just as we’re used to calling words of actions verbs, but let’s just enjoy our mouths for a moment, in their delight with water, and listen to the water flow:

Do [mouth] [water] the [mouth]
when [mouth] [water] a{n} [mouth]
central to [mouth], the [mouth] of
[mouth] between your [mouth]

That’s nonsensical, so let’s get a little more specific:

Do{es} mouth [water] the [grass]
when [well] [pools {in}] a{n} [mouth]
central to [rock], the [mouthing] of
[rock] between your [welling]

It’s still hard to parse, although it’s a flow of water around rock now. (In the image below, you can see a visual representation of this question, with the pool of life around the stone, created by its welling water, and the flow of the deer trail, moving just as water does around the stone. Deer aren’t going to step into a hole in the sky like this. No way. They might fall like rain. Ummmph.)

This parsing difficulty, the problem of differentiating all the different forms of welling and the duality of their relationships to each other is why we have all the individual forms of rock that Penn wisely used: you, days, silicon, element, sand, grit, toes. They are all body-specific, even sand and grit, which are the sound and feel of them to touch. The principle, however, holds. To look at this moment as a whole, Penn is saying something similar to the image below, in which each stone on the hill, cut up by deer on this trail, is a well or a welling in the the earth-body of the poem:

Note that the bunchgrass is holding the rock (the well) in memory. That’s the poetry here, and the gesture central to bringing this deep earth experience over into social space. Understanding a poem in this way can give us a deep understanding of the work it does in the world. For example, if Penn had written the poem so that it filled a pattern of :

well, well, well, well,

well: mouth

rock rock rock rock rock rock:

It would have been a charm to make the world fall away in a screen slide and tumble under us. lt would have been a different environment — one for us to gather different information.

Form matters. Penn has controlled our ability to work with the world in this way. So, that’s a very brief glance at how these energies pour through the body into the work of the mind and guide it in a one-on-one, doubled relationship with the earth. I also mentioned cities. How can this understanding work with urban planning? Well, just as directly: by controlling the placement of wells in relation to each other, especially wells of different orders of relationship to water, whether they shed it or pool it, for example. We can embed them in the land …

Siya? in a split stone, Kalamalka Lake Provincial Park

… or simply dry the land out or erode its capacity by dispelling the flow from the city.

To translate the image above into the language of the earth, in the manner of Penn’s poem, we might get something like this:


stone stone stone stone stone stone stone stone

stone stone stone stone stone water stone stone

stone stone stone stone stone stone stone stone

Eventually the water dries up. But that’s too simple. One could say, ya, sure, the water is pumped from the mountains or falls from the sky, flows down the streets or plumbing into a storm sewer, and then into the lake, and from there back to life. In other words, the city is acting like the well, or the rock, shedding water and passing it on elsewhere, where it erupts as life. However, for the people living within the city, there is no flow, and no well, or at least only a flow of people and their vehicles and their capital. Rather than being a dense environment, written on multiple, duplicated, mutually-supporting-and-strengthening levels, there is only a reduction to a simple, sustain flow, that does not pass through life. That’s a barren landscape for the development of human minds and capacity. It’s not a head like this, or its thoughts:

Now, I should tell you that the stone above has lain there for only a dozen years, yet in that time it has been half-swallowed up into the lake of life, well on its way from being a well to being an island. Note the deer trail that curls along to its right. It’s the way they like to go. The preferences of deer aside, how can we use these natural wells to increase the complexity and health of civic life, and deepen its connections with the physical world at the same time, and in so doing honour our bodies? Well, perhaps a glimpse out into the complexity of the lake in which the stones are islands might give us a hint:

Isn’t that a fine dandelion? Look how its downtown core is a well of green energy, that spreads out in an open star. Don’t think of that as the “city”. The city is the scattering of life in the space between these green arms, with a density, even there, of scarcely 50%, and then surrounded by increasingly complex, less-ordered space. To add a layer of complexity, here is balsam root.

What I’d like to draw your attention to is that this is an island made in time. It began as vertical stalks topped with flowers, which settled outside of the core to gather water and heat for the winter, and deliver them to the centre. It is, in other words, the opposite of our contemporary cities, which do not move in space but attempt to turn it into a steady state. If we’re going to do that, we need to speak more locally, as these glacial erratics do in the South Cariboo.

Notice that they do not disrupt the forest, but create habitat for life by distributing their heat, not into space or the atmosphere but to life, that cools it and turns it into oxygen instead of the carbon dioxide our cities produce. To extend this pattern, we might do nothing less than what the stone in the Nlaka’pamux Illahie does below:

Notice how it has channelled meltwater to create deep sheltered flow spaces around it. Any water it melts in deep winter by collecting the heat of the sun, it feeds into these channels, slowly, so that they are ready to receive a deluge when the spring comes, without eroding because of dryness. In other words, the stone is teaching us that our cities need to be wells, soaked with water, rather than spaces devoid of water and prone to excess or drought. This is drought:

The Truth About Downtown Loft Living.

This is even called “outside”. It is not a well.

A city below rock and living off the water shed by the rock (and by its own roofs), and not letting it flow on, that would be the city for this land.  There are lots of ways to achieve this. Here’s a common iteration:

The frost has split this rock, and the deer have used the split as passage. We can do that. We can let life flow through our houses as more than living water turned into Di-hydrogen oxide. The well must be at the heart of the city, not in the mountains far away. That is a trick that allows cities to get too big and the relations with land to become equally industrialized. This industrial water truck passing through Vernon, for instance…

… or this industrial orchard, able to exist in its environmental desertification due to industrialized water (and the forced unpopulation of productive lands in the mountains) that would make most of the water use it demonstrates unnecessary due to a 55% saving in transpiration rates alone …

… demonstrate what happens when our cities are not arranged as wells, and the effect these well-less cities have on the world around them. They become, in effect, wells, but not of life. Now, we’re not going to get wholesale land reform, but we can teach people to read the earth instead of just abstractions, however valuable they are. In time, our relations will become more complex. To return the discussion briefly back to poetry, if Penn Kemp had written her poem in a way that did not flow but followed the principle of welling rather than the body it welled within, we might get something like this, perhaps…

What can I say, my scanner died.


That “you” at the centre of the memory lake could be replaced by the river, or switched with memory, etc, in an effort to move productively into the space around the poem, the space that is not occupied but left as the blank space on the map. But Penn would not have to do that to get such insight into how to use her poem as a blueprint for guiding processes of urban design. She could just illuminate its chromosome structure, like this:

x chromosome:

Do you remember the days
when silicon was an element
central to sand, the sense of
grit between your toes by
the river

It’s all relational.

Here’s the Y chromosome:

Do you remember the days
when silicon was an element
central to sand, the sense of
grit between your toes by
the river

It’s all positional.

And together, they create and move a flow:

Do you remember the days
when silicon was an element
central to sand, the sense of
grit between your

Only the flow, the binding, can be read. A city exists within its environment. It does not dominate it. When it does, it ceases to exist, because the environment is its absence. Look around at the earth, go on.

the river 

The city of Vernon above has replaced a wetland rather than deepening one, while this cliff high above, which acts as a well, goes unused. The consequence of this colonial land use paradigm is the dirty air you see up the Coldstream Valley towards the Monashee Mountains. Vernon’s water comes from the forests of that distant, polluted slope. In Canadian culture, poetry is viewed as an aesthetic act, an act of protest, or a way of expressing and developing individual social identity within the Canadian social paradigm, yet poetry itself is so much more. It is quite simply pattern that our bodies make in the world, expressing its living patterns. If what is called poetry is not doing that, or what is called agriculture is not doing that, our cities are not our measure. For that, we need the earth.

And remember, a mouth and a well are both expressions of the primary energy of the traditions of the north: the ur-energy of en-ur-gy itself, hurricane, whirlpool, and world. This is the circular space that is a Gard, or garden, or yard, or orchard for people to tend, as it is the only place in the universe they can live. In the mouth. In the well. In this spilling forth. To not look after the well is to die. Let’s choose to live, eh. Mouths have many forms…

… and many actions.

Tonight, I’m excited about the way we can take poetry back to the world and read it. Imagine if Penn had missed the music of her lines. There would have been a hole in the music, and we would gone around it, and not seen what we have heard.

The music never lies.



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