New York, NY: Four Way Books, 2017. 80 pages. $15.95.
Christopher Kempf’s impressive debut, Late in the Empire of Men, is, from the outset, a tour de force of anti-nostalgia: a personal, particularly American coming-of-age into “the historical condition of the self,” as Montale once put it, that situates Millennials as a new Lost Generation—one most able to undress and reject the mythic West, Kempf suggests, even while being a doomed product of (and accomplice to) it. In its contextual scale, Empire might be one of the first serious books of poetry written about the amorphous generation, its endemic predicaments, and its fin de siècle disillusionments. “Where / I am from, everyone / I know is asleep,” Kempf writes in the book’s crushing final lines, referring to his Midwestern roots. By assuming a post-collapse perspective and zeitgeist throughout Empire, Kempf, like a ghostly guide, leads us through histories both personal and cultural, hoping to shine a flashlight into the eyes of whatever is looking back at us to tell us how we’ve failed ourselves.
Many poems in Empire, even through erotic turns, seem interested in debunking Baby Boomer self-exceptionalism, itself a microcosm of Western Empire’s self-mythology dating back to Rome. In civilization’s sometimes majestic accomplishments, Kempf seems to argue, there is a denied illness, a destructive structural force (built upon conquest and economy) buried by historical delusions that will be the catalyst for our undoing. In his cheeky conceit poem “Clearing The History,” Kempf tells us as much: just as our search-engine activities are “cached to a government server somewhere” never to be expunged, despite our cosmetic allegiance to privacy and agency, our continent’s interlocking tropes, fictions, and “histories”—and the real injustices therein—permanently circumscribe our Americanness; transgression, it turns out, is “carried inside us like a seed.” Kempf writes: “It is true // there is not a single cemetery / still in use in San Francisco,” meaning, almost literally in this case, too many corpses on which we’ve raised for ourselves a false dream. And there is, perhaps, no more perfect symbol for America’s costly manifest destiny than California, that “field / of gold, that so much / newness we longed for,” which, when they saw it, “brought [The Spanish] to their knees.”
The Golden State indeed looms large in Empire, not only as a symbol for imperialistic centuries in which “men scattered / their sickness before them,” as Kempf writes in “Pacific Standard,” but also in its wildfire grandeur and magnitude, as “a phenomenon beyond our capacity for destruction” and, in this way, a check against our historically deluded ambitions (“the distant edge / of an empire on fire”). It isn’t, in its larger concerns, new territory for civic-minded poetry, which Kempf fully understands; when he writes in the sober opening poem, “our grand tombs looming above us, we began / again the descent,” he is keenly aware what follows unfolds within a tradition, one that informs and determines the self and selves in these poems, as it does the culture at large. Kempf, in other words, understands his own context and brings that consciousness to bear with maturity and skill. In drawing a line between Virgil’s descriptions of Achaean swords as “beautiful” to the dead, captivating glow of Los Angeles at night, for example—the kind of kinetic association that defines Empire—Kempf isn’t aestheticizing aggression or battle as would be the case in a lesser poet’s hands; rather, he is enacting the notion that to be American is to exist, in some way, on a continuum of imperialism and myth, both of which play nefarious roles in constructing and perpetuating the grand American illusion embedded both in consciousness and society.
For the Millennial generation, at least, such illusions and their appeal are waning—an observation one imagines Kempf could have in mind when describing Los Angeles as “a man” (like Orion beyond the smog above) “in his warrior’s vestments—vanishing.” Here, Kempf implies, even language and metaphor cannot escape the very idioms of violence that also erode them. In “Bindery,” Kempf recalls a day on the job at the college library, watching helicopters swooping over looters at the National Museum of Iraq after the 2003 American invasion, while he—literally—binds together history; the metaphoric implication is stunning: that in our imperial conquests, in this case for oil and power, America sets in motion the literal erasure of previous histories, ones that might undermine its tidy western vision of itself. He writes:
by the lights of choppers
in the sky above them, by
the burning oil fields the future
to which we were bound
would be lit with.
Wherever Kempf’s life experiences emerge, a larger historical association is not far off. This may be why Empire so successfully bears witness to sustained violence throughout history and how that history becomes internalized and externalized in everything from video games to predictive text—a timely insight for our annus horribilis. And swagger, dark wit, erotic melancholy, syntactic dexterity, and many laudable skills are on display in Empire, all of which successfully contribute to its tonal and thematic universe. For instance, Kempf’s talent for severe enjambment—a hallmark of a restless mind, or a complicated thought—formally mimes the interconnectedness of inner and outer, of reality and delusion, of individual and cultural self-perceptions he has charged himself with scrutinizing. But the remarkable achievement here is that, while grounded by geography and class-specific experiences particular to Kempf’s life, the poems never mistake narrative as a vessel solely for personal memory. Like Philip Levine or Larry Levis before him (two poets who magnetized their personal histories through scope and tone, not plot points chopped into verse), Kempf knows how to be both intimate and sweeping simultaneously and across a wide-ranging formal inventiveness. So while we’re offered a glimpse into Kempf’s “autobiographical” movement from the Midwest to The West played out across the book (and echoed, masterfully, in one of the crown jewels, “Oregon Trail”), we are, in the same glimpse, offered discursive meditations about the overlapping and contradictory narratives of being American.