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FOUR POEMS by Christopher Kempf

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.
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.
 

 

 

Issue 7 Contents                                       NEXT: Two Poems by Jennifer Givhan

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About Christopher Kempf

Christopher Kempf
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.