NEA Literature Fellowships

Christopher Kempf

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(2015 - Poetry)

"Yosemite Lodge Food Court"

Late in the season we eat
with plastic utensils our Western-
themed dinners, our Indian
cheesesteaks steaming
in their wrappers.  El Capitan
Tenders.  Yosemite
Samburgers.  The booth's
vinyl whines
beneath us.  My brother
lifts his face to the plate-
glass windows where,
in the last light of day, Half Dome— broken
capitol— flashes
then wanes.  When,
in 1851, 200
Ahwahneechee retreated across the Valley,
a battalion of militia— Jim
Savage at its head— hunted
the natives to the very base
of the rock.  The slaughter, story
has it, lasted
twenty minutes & for sixty days
stained the earth red.  First
gold in Merced then,
by refrigerated railcar, corrals
of beef brought west
through mountain passes to fatten
the boomtown.  Tonight,
the greatest generation grazes
its Taft Point Pasta.  All
their lives they have worked for this, in
Bakersfield & Fresno sweated
at their machines to feel
at last, passing
out of the city, the wind
in their chartered RVs.  To see, sad
cow eyes rising to the window, what's
left.  Next
to the bathhouse a herd of mule deer dozes
in Sentinel Meadow.  At the edge
of the park pine stands & scrub
brush burn.  My brother,
I will miss you when it comes.  When sometime
late in the Cenozoic, the smoking
earth turns
at last to the satisfaction
for which it has waited, the flames
from here to San Francisco licking
the planet clean of us clear
down to its plates of rock.  Already
this fall, they are swallowing
the high timber.  The tourists
wheel their tanks of oxygen
open.  Slowly
we chew.

Christopher Kempf is a Ph.D. student in English Literature at the University of Chicago and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. His writing has appeared in Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review Online, and The New Republic, among other places. He received his MFA from Cornell University.

Photo by Corey Van Landingham

Author's Statement

Whenever I receive a phone call from a number I don't know, I let myself hope, for just a second, that it's a publisher or prize committee and that I've won something incredible.  Inevitably, of course, it's a call center in South Dakota wanting to know if I'm happy with my wireless carrier or how often I dine out; but when I saw "Washington, D.C." and when I heard "This is the NEA," I proceeded, like an idiot, to run around campus pumping my fist and hugging everyone I know. 

I'm deeply grateful for that moment. 

I'm grateful, to both the NEA and its panel of judges this year, for the financial support which will allow me to research a new manuscript on urban infrastructure and economic catastrophes, and which, more generally, will help alleviate those concerns of time and money we all, I think, find so threatening to the writing of careful, intelligent poetry.  I'm also grateful, and perhaps more importantly, for the encouragement and validation an award like this provides.

The poems in this application, including "Yosemite Lodge Food Court," are from a manuscript called Late in the Empire of Men, which explores how American military and economic imperialism is undergirded by the rhetorical construction of its citizens, in particular boys and young men. Through video games like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, for example, or through sports like auto-racing and football, American males are inducted into discourses of violence which directly underwrite the imperial state, a civilization bound, like those other empires I explore in the collection, Rome and Carthage, to collapse beneath the weight of its own myth-making.