WHAT THOUGH THE FIELD BE LOST
forthcoming January 2021 from LSU Press
Based on two years living and researching in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, What Though the Field Be Lost uses the battlefield there as a way to engage ongoing issues involving race, regional identity, and the ethics of memory. With empathy and humility, Kempf reveals the overlapping planes of historical past and public present, integrating archival material—language from monuments, soldiers' letters, eyewitness accounts of the battle—with reflection on present-day social and political unrest. Here monument protests, police shootings, and heated battle reenactments expose the ambivalences and evasions involved in the curation of national (and nationalist) identity. In What Though the Field Be Lost, Kempf shows that, though the Civil War may be over, the field at Gettysburg and much of what it stands for remain all too contested.
What Though the Field Be Lost is a book about redemption. These poems want to know if the America citizens are compelled to love can ever be the nation it claims to be but never was: 'What is it,/though, that lets a man imagine a country/worth weeping for?' These and other well-wrought lines take up a long tradition started by Whitman, carried by Robert Lowell and Robert Penn Warren, and recently refurbished by poets like the late Jake Adam York. Christopher Kempf, though, wants to make a poem that moves us emotionally and literally: 'All art/…aspires likewise to wrench us/from complacency. To make us/turn, suddenly, toward some spectacular mess/made pleasing…' This is a brilliant and beautifully ambivalent volume in which the poet uses his entire self—'Montgomery & I, & Jesus & Shakespeare/& a bottle of Boone’s Farm my father/had bought for us just this once'—to make whole and healing poems.
-Jericho Brown, author of The Tradition
'All art, / the point is, aspires likewise to wrench us / from complacency.' Kempf more than fulfills this aspiration in his new collection, What Though the Field Be Lost, a layered, lyrical, and learned meditation on American history past and present. Kempf’s work revisits and reconstructs the many meanings of Gettysburg, offering a provocative re-consideration of the past while speaking with a clear, humane voice to the turmoil in our contemporary conversation. Deeply thoughtful, statement-rich, What Though the Field Be Lost steeps us in an expansive interrogation of Civil War statues, racial violence, war, slavery, masculinity, and the breaking news that threatens to inundate and overwhelm. Throughout, Kempf shows that old familiar history has a fierce appetite. It waits to consume us all.
-Janice N. Harrington, author of Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin
What Though the Field Be Lost offers us a guided tour through the tragic cyclorama of American history, in which 'we exit through the entrance' only to find that, 'to mend it / completely they sewed back the sky.' Beyond repair or restoration, contemporary racial politics resembles nothing so much as an endless Civil War reenactment in this intimate historiography of eternal return: 'I want / to tell you that these summers the cities / of America are filled with the bodies / of young black men,' writes the poet, 'though for that, I have read, / the country collapsed once & split.' Revisiting, revising, and reforming constructions of whiteness from Milton to Whitman to the Southern Agrarians and beyond, Christopher Kempf refuses to 'plant plastic flags for Gettysburg’s fallen' when more reparative futures await our construction. 'Go now, / you who have heard,' his work refuses to end, '& spread the good news.'
-Srikanth Reddy, author of Underworld Lit