Book Review

Throughout his second poetry collection, Christopher Kempf reckons with the schisms at the root of American identity and history, from the Civil War to modern-day mundanities like a “BEACH PARTY STEAK FRY”—as one poem is titled—and a high school homecoming game. In “Homecoming,” Kempf observes the quotidian accumulate to something ultimately as significant national identity:

                                                      In America
our monarchs sit courtside, queen
                                                shining in her cheap tiara,
            texting, the men
    of the king’s cortege letting Milk Duds
                        arc cleanly to each other’s mouths. How
coolly they reign, as if
            at last, after history, this were
                                                      in fact our home.

If “after history” is a landscape, it is one where we all must make “our home.” Lest we forget to pay attention to the materials with which we are homemaking here in America, the poems in What Though the Field Be Lost unearth the division and bloodshed at the root of American democracy.

Now is a particularly poignant time to be looking back to the Civil War. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, researchers at the University of Southern California determined that “partisan elites in the U.S. are as polarized today as they were around the time of the Civil War.” In the intervening years, polarization—evidenced by national phenomena like protests for racial equity, the proliferation of private militia groups, and the politicization of public health measures during the COVID pandemic—has led to a sobering 46% of Americans saying they believe in a likely future civil war. This is the world out of which Kempf wrote What Though the Field Be Lost while he lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, home to the single bloodiest battle of the Civil War in 1863.

Given the history and the battleground out of which these poems arise, they often surprise with their familiarity. The America in this book is one we know; there are gas station snacks, honeysuckle and deer at the edges of summer running paths, NASCAR races, Christian metaphors everywhere you look, pickup trucks, Carharrt, Chipotle, men drinking whiskey at a bar while watching whatever games happen to be on TV. In “Natinals,” a poem that begins with an ESPN headline about a company misprinting the Washington Nationals baseball team jerseys, Kempf ends with the inevitable yet critical comparison between the fields of war and sport:

                                                                              Some boys,
they will say, chase a ball
                                                      around a field to no end
                                       save beauty.

                                                                              But I know
this isn’t us. Our custom
      is ancient & terrible. There
                         is a hero who is all of us, one
                                            nation on his chest—cloud-
gatherer, breaker
                                       of horses. He parades
               dreadfully, behold, to the plate.

What Though the Field Be Lost interrogates not just the truths of American democracy, but the masculinity at its very heart. The “hero who is all of us” is a man, and his heroism is ancient, terrible, and dreadful. Why, the speaker of Kempf’s poems seems to ask, do we still feed him? Why do we look to his mythos now, a century and a half later?

Centered in the book is one poem around which the others orbit, a long docupoem titled “The Union Forever.” The speaker’s original lines are interrupted by quotes from the Battle of Gettysburg soldiers’ letters, from Walt Whitman, from the monuments that stand today at Gettysburg. In his own voice, the speaker observes the battlefield from the twenty-first century, but verb tense and therefore time seem to both soften and morph as history rises like bile, becomes inescapable:

                         We knew,
                         I suppose, that soldiers—
            day one—had fallen gut-shot
                                                   in our driveway. We found it
simple to forget this. In so
              charming a place to forget—Whitman,
                                                           1863—the heap
of feet & arms, et cetera. Men
sawed into stumps. Men cut
                                           away from themselves—it was
            not lost, the simile—like
                      the nation they had risen for.

History is often something we think we’ve learned, but our books and multiple-choice tests belie its visceral brutality. But this American forgetting, a palimpsest the landscape embodies, is not new to our era. As Kempf reminds us later in the same poem, “Congressmen / hired carriages afterward / & rode out—oak / coolers filled with champagne, the prostitutes / dazzling in their hoop skirts—to see / for themselves the rumored field. / They found / their country.” We see layers of brutality, “everywhere / the line breaking.”

Throughout the book, Kempf’s multi-dimensional and inclusive attention peels back archival layers while paying just as astute attention to the homecoming queen at a small-town high school. This is the precise kind of honesty missing from contemporary political discourse, discourse that weighs so heavily on our nation’s consciousness so as to steer us into our collective future. What Though the Field Be Lost is a book for America, not an elegy or memorial, but a book that speaks to our moment for what it truly is—yes, one built on inescapable brutality, but also one at a precipice that shines with promise in a way that no myth can.

About the Reviewer

Katherine Indermaur is the author of Facing the Mirror: An Essay (Seneca Review Books, Fall 2022), winner of the 2022 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, and two chapbooks. She serves as an editor for Sugar House Review, and is the winner of the Black Warrior Review 2019 Poetry Contest and the 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize. Her writing has appeared in Coast|noCoast, Ecotone, Frontier Poetry, the Journal, New Delta Review, the Normal School, Seneca Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Colorado State University and lives within sight of the Rocky Mountains.