“Before I was a man I was a man / made of pixels,” Christopher Kempf writes in “Oregon Trail,” a poem early in his prize-winning debut. Like many in the collection, Kempf’s ode to the titular computer game is about coming of age in the Information Age, where writing entails virtual violence:
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.
With their mock bravado and arcane diction, his recollections of the game are both comic and horrifying. But the grotesque final details here put a fine point on his irony: as a kid learning to type, he essentially reenacted a genocide. And not just of native species, but indigenous people, too—the poem later juxtaposes his digital play with a graphic account of an 1855 attack on a tribe of Takelma Indians by Western settlers.
This unsettling layering of different histories—personal, political, cultural, technological—is Late in the Empire of Men’s signature gesture. Kempf’s sense of the historical uncanny is evident from the very first poem, “Sledding at Harding Memorial,” which begins: “It was how humans, the future will say, / entertained themselves those last centuries / winter existed.” Kempf often curates these slippages between past and present, present and future, to illustrate how our culture relies on and exploits our alienation from history. “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” enumerates, for example, what the jingoistic video game fails to include. “Not the smart bombs & boxes of / dead,” he writes, “Not // the wedge of flag our neighbor / David came back as.”
Kempf is particularly insightful about the ways our empire extracts complicity from men. As “Indianapolis 500” observes, “A man, // after all, enters / myth only so many ways this century. Proficiency / at killing things is one. Another / is upcycling his six- / cylinder in the middle / of turn four.” The ultimate spoils of empire, especially late ones, are songs—that is, what Kempf himself is writing. But his songs, at least, are clear about their cost, about the danger our nation poses to those it marginalizes, and the toll it exacts on its own citizenry.
His citation of myth is typical: his poems bristle with allusions to the classics. “In a Year of Drought, I Drink Wine in a Los Angeles Hot Tub” begins with Homer: “So too on Troy’s final afternoon / the doomed children of the city sang.” The suggestion, Kempf writes in “Clearing the History,” is that “it is never really cleared, / history, that it / is carried inside us like a seed.” We’re not only playing out more recent national narratives about, say, frontier masculinity, but also more ancient ones, too, about memory, and violence.
Kempf’s hyper-linked poems are powerful not only because of what they include, but also how they include it—through droll enjambments and switchback syntax, in how he arrays his sentences to connect these dots across time and place. His use of space adds to his momentum, his stanzas often cascading across the page like the triadic lines of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Williams’s centripetal epic about marriage, modernism and the atomic bomb.
But Kempf is at his best when he most resembles another of his influences, his fellow Ohioan James Wright, who had a particular gift for vulnerability. “Clearing the History,” one of the book’s highlights, combines everything from Internet infrastructure to sex clubs to Spanish colonialism. But what really gives it weight is its personal dimension. It does the important cultural work of exploring how digital pornography impacts male sexuality, but beneath its referential pyrotechnics, it’s essentially a poem about shame and desire. It follows a confessional logic, beginning with the poet’s father discovering him looking at porn, and charting the way that the speaker’s sexual awakening was an act of rebellion against a repressed background and upbringing, against his “parents’ / slow dying together / in Ohio.”
It matters little that his rebellion is both costly and unsuccessful. “Forget / how it ended,” Kempf writes, “I spent my savings. I became / my father.” What matters is the reckoning. The title action of the poem—clearing one’s browser history to erase our any unseemly tendencies—gives us a great figure for what Kempf’s collection works against: the occlusion of the difficult, embarrassing, even horrifying parts of our realities—including our very appetites.
“Want // is rarely respectable,” Kempf writes, but he explores it with directness and lucidity. The most moving poems in the collection are those that finds the intimacy in history—the one about draining a lover’s cyst, for example, or those focused on his sister. The playful, incantatory “In the ’90s” adds wonderful texture to the collection, but I enjoyed it most when its anthemic we clearly masks a particular I: “We didn’t know, / in the ‘90s, we were poor. We played // with army men in the desert / of our dingy living room floor, with Legos / on the ocean of our bedrooms.”
I sometimes wanted Kempf’s clearly abundant imagination to reveal more or push farther. Could he explore race and whiteness more explicitly, or linger on his assertion that “love is plural”? But if the collection’s tension between the collective and lyric, the national and personal, is not completely resolved, it’s because it’s impossible for it to be. We cannot separate our individuality from the background it emerges from. We are at once the subjects of empire, and its peculiar dissidents. His remarkable debut maps new way for the lyric to register both.
About the Reviewer
Benjamin Voigt grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York. His poetry and poetry reviews have appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, Pleiades, Rain Taxi and on the Poetry Foundation's website. He currently teaches literature and creative writing at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota.