Christopher Kempf is a Ph.D. student in English Literature at the University of Chicago and a former Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford. A recipient of a 2015 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, his writing has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online, and The New Republic, among other places. He received his MFA from Cornell University.
Sunday, 29 March 2015
SLEDDING AT HARDING MEMORIAL It was how humans, the future will say, entertained themselves those last centuries winter existed. Cribs of dogwood racked in the side yard. Jarred fruit. Fat in our snowsuits, my sister & I climbed the huge steps & pressed our faces to the gate's wrought bars. Beyond them the President, we understood, slept beside his wife in the hard earth of Ohio. Here, in 1923, street after street of our hometown trimmed in black felt, his funeral train trundled at last to a stop. The body, blocked in ice since California, face sewn shut, sunk slowly in its chamber & later that evening the team of men whose job it was rose from their dinners & lifted into place the great slab, something paleolithic laid at the spot where history— its grand ambition in ruins— wandered away to die. On Delaware our father watched us from the base of the hill. I held my sister in my legs & allowed the inertia of the spinning earth to work. Wind lashed our faces. The formed plastic of the sled scored the ground behind us & after we had stopped our father, become suddenly a beast in harness, hauled us back. The last of the presidential tombs towered above us, its roughly classical columns obscured by the shifting snow. By extracting for their monuments only the finest of stone, Spengler argues, Egyptian architects expressed through craft their culture's solemn & meticulous care for the future. Therefore the past. Pyramids of limestone sliding into place behind men bent forward. Father tying our sled to his own. Low against the earth, he turned us to the edge & together, our train of blood & plastic lashed tight against what would come— the sudden thaw, our long- unlooked for ruin— we began again the descent. OREGON TRAIL Before I was a man I was a man made of pixels, a glittering column of dots drawn west across the earth by word of land limitless & given freely to he who worked it. First, on the line assigned, I typed the names of my children, fitted our wagon with axle grease & for each child a change of clothing. I followed the pathway day by day across Nebraska, my rations set to filling, my four head of oxen walking steady. Spirits were high. To hunt, the instructions said, enter 'BANG' as quickly as possible. I slaughtered, with my deft spelling, elk & buffalo, whole herds of antelope & my family sucked on the bones til Bridger. Beyond our school's computer lab that month, McVeigh's Ryder truck erupted in a parking lot somewhere we had never heard of, its twentyfoot fuse looping cartoon -like, I imagined, to the packed wagon. Back in 1855, miners with the Lupton party charged at midnight a tribe of Takelma camping near the trail. They tore women from their husbands, from the arms of their mothers cut the littles one & ran them through Bowie knife spine to hilt. To hunt, the instructions said, enter. We bent our faces to the screen, keyed the letters again & again & let the meat of the pronghorn rot in our wagons. We contracted typhoid, forded the river at the South Pass & were dragged in the mad flux under. Amy has drowned. Dad has measles. We marched with our diseases seaward & wrote, when at last we succumbed to snakebite, our tiny pixels flickering in the dusk somewhere at the edge of the West, wrote there our own epitaphs on the line provided. Behind us on the map our path wound like a fuse across the continent. Congratulations the game said. Press SPACE to continue. AT MY SISTER'S WEDDING, I DANCE THE DANCE OF SWINE In the country my kinfolk came from, shame— ancientest of passions— had still in the old years its uses. If you, as I am, were for instance eldest of your family's siblings & if on the day of your sister's marriage you remained spouseless still, given rather to the Black Forest's fruitless wastes & to brooding, you danced also the hog's tarantella. The trough is wheeled to the floor. My father's family, four centuries in Ohio, lines the stage waiting for the past's last lingering ritual. My sister smiles. Her white dress is everything that I, imagining it, had imagined it would be & she, inside it, is for the last time the small & wiggling thing I held in the county hospital. Slop, the trough means. That she is the fairytale daughter gone tonight to some dark country of love & dying & that I am thirty & single. Still my family's name awaits in me its future. In Luke, Legion— demon of many parts— plunges to the sea snared in a herd of pigs. My pants are rolled to my knees. My feet work nimbly the mix of mud & wine. Once we played, Amy & I, wife & husband in our mother's kitchen. I admit it's the closest I've been to living with a woman. Once, in the old days, angered by the pride of humans, the brute gods dropped among us one of those chthonic monsters myth is crowded with. This was a boar, the story explains, sated only by the blood of children & if, as I was once, you also were a man you mustered with your people each autumn to slaughter over & over the cloven- hoofed hog. The trough rocks beneath me. The mud, color of shit, is sweeter than you would believe. My people, who love me, are just. PACIFIC STANDARD Against which, I mean, we for the first time sounded ourselves & were found wanting. What else could we do then but spread to every recalcitrant corner we carved from sandstone & Sioux? Sic. It's craved I meant, as Magellan, who named the thing, sailing around the Cape craved home. The hushed waters he thought he saw, I see nowhere tonight in the rising white- capped combers off Pacifica. Pax facere. To make, Magellan believed, peaceful. To find oneself at the edge of the continent for the first time, as I did at thirty, & to forget this hour has happened almost everywhere. That men for centuries scattered their sicknesses before them like seed. That we who shadowed gold to the coast confronted only then a phenomenon beyond our capacity for destruction. Something like a violence utterly other— the tumbling scud. The seastack & crag crumbling like what do you know of power? How can you not look away? Where I am from, everyone I know is asleep.