LATE IN THE EMPIRE OF MEN

Winner of the Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry (2015)

Late in the Empire of Men, Kempf’s powerful debut collection, reads the author’s coming-of-age in Ohio and California against the westward trajectory of American history, a trajectory he simultaneously situates in the larger context of empire—both political and anthropocentric—by looking back to Rome and Carthage and by glancing forward to a time when, as he writes in the poem “Dominion,” “the idea of people/is over.” Employing a baroque layering of image and allusion, patterned sonic texturing, and post-narrative self-consciousness, Kempf reveals how commonplace rhetorical practices—football’s valorization of a “warrior ethos,” for example—work to conscript young American men, in particular, into patterns of thought and behavior constitutive of an imperialist state.

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In Late in the Empire of Men, Christopher Kempf manages the astonishing feat of filtering a journey to adulthood through the trajectory of American history. [...] Kempf is a master of seamless juxtaposition: almost every poem moves smoothly into and out of its immediate circumstances, weaving myth and history, literary reference and new events into its fabric. The stitching together of lines is equally masterful: the syntax of extended and surprisingly ordered sentences, the sense of line as container as well as unit to be broken, the interplay and tension between syntax and line, and the sounds—particularly assonance—that help define line and movement are often breath-taking. The territory of Late in the Empire of Men can be as uncompromising as its title, but it also contains moments of celebration, many of them linguistic. In a poem that takes us back to the dinosaurs and into the future, line breaks make apocalyptic vision gorgeously resonant as Kempf imagines the trees that might outlive us: “The language- // less. In- / describable night.”

-Martha Collins, Judge

 

Kempf’s debut collection succeeds in familiar — if not quite traditional — ways: Long sentences and interwoven plots contrast the poet’s confined early life in blue-collar Ohio with the measure of freedom he found on the West Coast. Kempf’s neighbor died in uniform in Iraq; that loss becomes for Kempf an emblem of American, and Midwestern, bad faith. [...] Embodiment, and adulthood, and sexual discovery, are sadly irreversible but ought to give pleasure; so the poet concludes, telling his partner (as they drive east through Nevada), “We will pass / through many states still, you / & I, but we, we say, / were in California once & young.”

-The New York Times

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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.

-The Kenyon Review

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This unsettling layering of different histories—personal, political, cultural, technological—is Late in the Empire of Men’s signature gesture. [...] 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. [...] 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. [...] 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. [...] His remarkable debut maps new ways for the lyric to register both.

-Colorado Review

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Late in the Empire of Men takes the form of a book-length sequence of persona-driven lyrics that consider the relationship between power, privilege, and various constructions of masculinity. [...] It is useful to think of Kempf’s work not as advocacy but rather as a documentary project, one that gathers and accounts for narratives circulating within a deeply flawed culture. In Kempf’s deftly constructed sequence, masculinity and empire are revealed as a palimpsest that can never be fully or convincingly erased. We are reminded that the cultural moment we inhabit is in actuality a layering of past “cities” and their “music,” an “excavation” taking place just below our conscious perceptions of which we are largely unaware. As Kempf himself reminds us, “everyone we know is asleep.”

-The Los Angeles Review

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