Sunday Jul 14

KempfChristopher Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the Levis Prize from Four Way Books and is forthcoming in March 2017.  Recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, his work has appeared in Gettysburg ReviewKenyon ReviewThe New Republic, and Ploughshares, among other places.  He lives in Chicago, where he is a Ph.D. student in English Literature at the University of Chicago.



Nights that semester, the rest
of campus deep in its Baroque paintings

& trig functions above me, I milled
the spines from a stack of back issues. I slid

the loose ream to Mike, a man
who for half a century had stood

at a bench in the library's basement binding
the separate issues into one. The industrial-

gauged needle dropped & retracted, his stack
of acid-free paper punctured

beneath it. This, he said once, requires
of us the most devoted of care. I covered

the stacks with adhesive & sheathed them
in marbleized backing. We bound

the back issues exactly
& in silence, Mike

& I, while
on a TV in the corner the war worked

its way at last to the National
Museum of Iraq. We watched

together the vast catalog of loss. Lyres
of Ur, oldest

of stringed instruments. The earliest
mask of the face in fragments. I passed

the sewn-up, coverless book back
to Mike who mounted the bare ream

in its buckram cover—classics
in red, economics indigo. History,

on the late news, loosed
itself again into bedlam. Men

fled the museum heaped
with Sumerian jewelry. They moved

silently, guided
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.

Best of All Possible Worlds

Elsewhere, then, the wrench engineering
airman George McDonald drops, August
     1980, into

then igniting the Titan II
nuclear warhead does, in that world, result
            in the largest domestic catastrophe—that

phrase—we can, we imagine,
imagine. Damascus,

of Arkansas actually, all
of the hot & God-forsaken South—shrouded
            in fire & dust. In another

world, the wobbling SkyWest jetliner
that passed, last week, within
            a football field of flight

92 from Houston to San Francisco clips
the wings of that plane & sails, face
            first, into the desert

of Taos, New Mexico. No one, in one
world, pulls the baby from the well or will,
            there, spare

from its sky the flight attendant scheduling
error spared in this one. In this
            world alone, Leibniz

said, the best
our one God could muster comes
            to pass. & that         

appeased us for a minute. We did
live—didn't we?—free
     of those great disasters modernity

would be ruined by. Leibniz
in the royal palace pawed
            the ladies in waiting. The ancient

regimes of Europe turned
calmly to their affairs. Then first
            the earth shook. The sea        

drew back & gathered
there on the beach fleeing
            the heat from the burning city, Lisbon's           

stunned populace watched
a world long hidden, littered
            with shipwrecks & rotting cargo, show         

itself. & so
the wave came. Later, the living
            with their sacks—the survivors,

to embalm the one-hundred
thousand dead, dredging
     their bodies with salt. Which supposes,

that number, one
of every kind of death potentially
     existing in this world—one

girl holding the severed leg
of her mother, one
            man dragging his insides—

existed. There is,
Leibniz knew, true
     calm after acceptance. Even the slightest         

of atrocities could shock us
once, remember? He died
            Leibniz, out of favor & alone

in the slums of Hanover. & homeless, roaming
the hills above his fallen capital, King
            Joseph of Portugal swore

to his tired retinue never
again would he enter
            a city & didn't. His village

of tents & pavilions billowed
all his life in those hills, haunted
            there by the ocean breeze, that best

air possible, God's
breath, we said, salting
            the face of the waters.

80 East, Nevada

                               & in the opposite direction, west
from Omaha & Independence, the settlers
       of California traveled too

                                                once, their wagons
                            loaded with buckshot & sometimes
with dressers even & ovens along
the same labyrinthine river, the Humboldt, the road
                                   still to this day trails. A day

out from San Francisco, we know
               the towns through which we pass—Nevada's
         sad, forgotten gold belt—by
                        the massive hillside letters men
in those places arranged the rocks as. E
                                                       for Elko. O, there

         is always for us the hunger
to inscribe with our own narratives
                             the wild, high-Sierra scrub of what
                                                we fear. To form,
   as couples before us have done here, hearts
            of rock in the sand. Amanda
                                                         & Jason. Nathan
   & Sophia. Through such

                               a sentimental landscape our little
rented Penske passes. In back
                                       we have loaded what is mine
                 of the life we shared in California—
the folding chairs & floor lamps, the low
            dependable bed on which
                             we too were a couple once. We,
                       who when it is over will begin
         in our separate cities saying
we miss each other & what
                                 is the weather like there & there
         there. Then

                                             is the highway a kind
            of fuse too for us. Un-           
                                 settling. South           

   of this place, late one winter pinned
                         in the Wasatch Mountains, Margaret
                                                     Reed—her husband,
   for killing a man, banished—begged
from William Graves for eight
                        times the going price a pair
                                   of famished oxen. She watched
         the children pick from their teeth even
the poor beasts' hooves & later, taking
                        care, she says, that no one
should consume a relative, they let
                         themselves at last imagine each other
                                                            as meat. We

understand now how
                                    it is done. One
     must loosen from the legbone whole
                                                   the hamstring. Strip
                                         clean the deep fascia. That                                   
           was when, the histories say, Graves
                                                           came, the ache
     of what he was owed low
in his gut & claimed
her debt in flesh. He fucked her
I mean. & we,

                   who have convinced ourselves
                                             that when it is over even we
will talk, still, & be close, know
               in our bitter, indigestible bones how barren
                                           & uncrossable a continent
     the heart is. How sheer
                                              its cliffs. The cities

& towns along the highway here hand-
            painted their geoglyphs red,
                                           white, & blue in the wake
                    of the towers' falling. We watch
                        the C of Carlin, Nevada—flag-
colored outcropping—drop
                                 away behind the Penske's insect-
speckled glass. We will pass
                                    through many states still, you
                                               & I, but we, we say,
     were in California once & young.