Caribou Run: poems about caribou and us, by Richard Kelly Kemick

Yes, this is a book review. Of a book of poetry.  And nobody made me write it. High-school me is gobsmacked.

Careers take us interesting places, and a couple of years ago mine took me to a creative-writing MA defence in my university’s English department.  I was the external examiner for Richard Kelly Kemick, whose thesis was a book of poetry.  I’ll tell my fish-out-of-scientific-water story in another post.  Today I want to tell you about Kemick’s poems – which you can read, because his book Caribou Run has just been published* (links below).

I am very far from being a poetry expert.  In fact, I believe Kemick’s book is just the second volume of poetry I’ve ever read. As a result, I won’t attempt much analysis or literary criticism; but I’ll tell you some of why the poems sing for me.

Caribou Run is a cycle of 46 poems that follows, at least obliquely, the yearly migration of the Porcupine herd of caribou in Canada’s Yukon Territory. I say “obliquely” because it’s more than that.  Some poems, or at least some stanzas, are clearly about caribou:

The permafrost is a palimpsest
overwritten with ancestral movement
scents like signatures scored into ice,
the calligraphy of the migration’s
sharp-hoofed curves.
– fromIntroduction”

Others, on the surface, have little to do with caribou:

So we take a drive on the secondary, stopping
at an abandoned home, paint flaking like dry skin.
In the hallway’s hollow light, you find a bookmarked copy
of Moby Dick, and a grey dress hanging in the closet
that, from the the corner of your eye, lies to you and pretends
to be embodied, a warm-blooded ghost.
– from “The Process of Extinction”

And many poems are in the middle, because Caribou Run is (I think) not really about caribou, but rather about what caribou (and the wild more generally) share with us, and how we are also, in other ways, each alien to the other. As Kemick writes in The Calving Grounds, “We meet each other / in the faces of other mammals”. This meeting involves a lot of metaphor; and when metaphor is done well, writer and reader find each other halfway to new understanding.  Kemick does metaphor very well, to my taste.

Caribou Run is something of a romp through poetic form. It has short poems and long; rhyming verse and blank; ghazals and tankas and other structures you’ll notice and appreciate even if (like me) you’ve never heard of them.  Actually, a lot of Kemick’s technical achievement may be lost on me; I think there’s something of the virtuoso on display here, but I’m ill-equipped to be sure.  The diversity of form is still a fine thing (even if some forms seem to work a bit better than others).

The poems in Caribou Run are often poignant:

My sister believes in loss the way my science teacher believed in love.
I’m unsure of either but will defer to otters tying their seaweed
and wolves tasting their pups, to parrot feathers and a handful of earth
tossed over polished wood…
– from “Postpartum from the Perspective of Grade Ten Biology”

They’re also beautiful, with taut and deft turns of phrase, sparkling allusions, and surprising twists.  They can even be funny:

God comes back from the break room
still wearing His robe and bunny slippers
jowls covered in five-day stubble.
He looks like Hell….
– from “Genesis 1:24”
(and read to on discover how a messy desk gave caribou antlers instead of wings.)

It’s hard to represent the richness of Caribou Run in a few quotes, and impossible – at least for me – to describe it.  If you read Caribou Run, you will learn something about caribou; something about poetry; something about the poet; and something about the human heart.  You should read Caribou Run.

By the way, if you’re a scientist who (like me) doesn’t routinely read poetry, Caribou Run makes the water inviting.  The work brings in mammalian anatomy, development, and behaviour (sometimes in cameos, sometimes in supporting roles, sometimes even in starring ones).  There are poems about wolverines and wolf spiders and lichens.  There are even snippets from our scientific literature worked in as something between epigraphs and found poems.  I don’t think Kemick does this with the intention of luring us out of our science buildings; but sometimes we can use some luring, so if it has that effect, that’s not a bad thing.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) April 27, 2016

Caribou Run is available from your local library or bookseller, or from

United_States Amazon.com, or

Canada Amazon.ca.


*^I didn’t know this, but for creative writing graduate programs, actual publication of the creative work is neither expected nor usual. Many creative-writing theses are never even submitted to presses for consideration.  In the sciences, I think at least the potential publishability of the work is part of what we recognize when we judge a thesis suitable for defence, and I would guess that the large majority of theses are eventually published in one form or another.

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5 thoughts on “Caribou Run: poems about caribou and us, by Richard Kelly Kemick

  1. Pingback: Fish out of water: a scientist examines a poetry thesis | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  2. Pingback: Pick and mix – eclectic links to stuff that caught my interest last week | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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