Pushcart XLII: Christopher Kempf, “Michaux State Forest, New Year’s” (poem) from Gettysburg Review, Summer 2016

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

The approach of the Angel Raphael: Original mezzotint, 1825-1826.

We run the kókúku trail (translation—
snow owl, in late-American) alone
this morning, its strict, midwinter alders
dark against the snowfall, its flocks of crows
shrieking as we pass. & as for the river—
there is a river. & as for those vast
accumulations of gasses—& as,
too, for the Fords & Hyundais, & the flows
of copper from Chile to Santa Cruz
& the migrant workers of Sri Lanka
scaling their towers in Dubai—that will,
some evening, rear up & expunge us,
yes, we can almost imagine ourselves
last here, our species’ sole surviving pair
of scavengers ventured forth for water
& shelter, as surely it will be, we
accept now, those new years the planet—poor
rock—is at last absolved of us.

Complete poem available online at Gettysburg Review

Paradise Lost is one of those literary works I’m afraid to read; I keep hoping I’ll come across a mooc or some heavily annotated guide at some point, and will finally tackle it as I did Dante a few years ago. But too late for this poem, which draws heavily on it; I think if I had more than a vague outline of the content, I’d be much better prepared. Oh well, the poem will still be there some day in the future when I finally get around to it. In the meantime, I can do the best I can with the poem, which shouts its message so clearly it almost compensates for my lacks.

It’s an eco-poem, but has so many reverberations – with the tragedy of 18th century Native American culture, with the short-sightedness of American capitalism, with industrial greed as the antidote to poverty, with Milton and Shakespeare – it’s far more than that. While I can’t really nail it down into a precise outline of interwoven themes and images, I wonder if maybe that’s missing the point, that poetry doesn’t have to be science, but can just leave a trace of some ineffable sensation lingering that sticks with us.

From the highest location for miles,
Milton says, he is shown, Adam, the wide
& lavishly manifold history
that will follow him. & it is glorious,
partly. How the banners ripple cleanly
from their turrets. With what refinéd grace
the courtesans attend their farandoles
& coronations. Paintings. Waltzes. Also,
however, in the teeming congeries
of men & animals, influenza
racing like a terror. Diphtheria
lifting its lurid flag, & back of this,
Milton describes, the emergent money
systems of sixteenth-century Europe
carried forth in the rolling cannon smoke
of capital.

This section draws from Book XI of Paradise Lost: after the first people are cast out from Eden, the angel Michael shows Adam the history that will unfold, the history he has created by his sin: his older son killing the younger, greed and hatred, hypocrisy, sacrificial altars, all humanity’s foolish and wayward doings up to the Flood, so Adam has an idea of just what he has unleashed. Kempf sets this against the French intrusion into North America in quest of furs, colonies, wealth, and the Indians’ view of the destruction caused by these endeavors. What follows is a reference to the massacre at the Enoch Brown schoolhouse in what today is Pennsylvania, a particularly grisly Native attack on children, teachers, and a pregnant woman that inflamed tensions. The speaker acknowledges the white settler’s point of view through the eyes of Andre Michaux, botanist, explorer, and namesake of the state park in which the poem is composed; but he sets that against the point of view of the Lenape Indians:

He would have, Michaux, heard
often of their savagery. He would have
called it that, & been properly appalled
when four Lenape entered a schoolhouse
here, winter 1764, & peeled
their blades across the skulls of the children
as they practiced their numbers. He would have
wept probably, though for the Lenape
it seemed simply the extravagant end
of a whole history of sicknesses
& ruin.

There is, of course, no pardon for murdering children (though we as a nation have decided it’s more important for NRA funds to flow freely than it is to reasonably license and control guns, even following the murder of twenty children in Newtown, CT). The speaker manages to give voice to both sides, not glossing over the horrendous violence, but looking back to see what it was in reaction to. And, by the way, violence beget more violence, as the settlers instituted “scalping bounties” to encourage murder of Indians.

And speaking of violence begetting violence:

When finally the earth—or
“this goodly frame, a spot,” Milton says—starves
us from its forests & riversides, it
will not be merciful. It will finish
us slowly. We know this.

Here I again call upon context: having just been immersed in a Shakespeare mooc for several weeks, I flashed on Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is a man” speech, written about 60 years earlier, which also uses the term “this goodly frame”. Is this a deliberate allusion? Or is it just a phrase common at the time, thus prone to being used by two poets? For that matter, did Kempf deliberately include an ambiguous phrase – and one which, in either context, is comfortable in this context – or was that, too, a happy accident?

I was able to find a footnote referencing a pertinent article on the cross-reference between Milton and Shakespeare by Concordia professor Judith Scherer Herz titled “Paradise Lost VIII: Adam, Hamlet and the Anxiety of Narrative” and am attempting to get my hands on the article (from 1988, but my local library has pulled off bigger miracles). In the meantime, I’m left to my own devices to see a connection with the poem.

[Addendum: Aha, a PDF of the 1988 article from the journal English Studies in Canada arrived, free of charge, compliments of my library, the UMass/Aherst library, and the Interlibrary Loan program. Public libraries are awesome!
I learned several things things from Dr. Scherer:
First, and perhaps most important: the use of the phrase is not an accident. “The linking phrase functions in Milton’s text as both allusion and echo. Milton is far too conscious a poet to let in another unwittingly, especially Shakespeare”, says Scherer.
Now, about Book VIII, she makes several points that relate to Kempf’s poem:
1. The poet is delaying The Fall with this mini-narrative; Kempf is doing something like the reverse, rolling back time to our Fall itself.
2. Adam is not gazing in wonder at the stars, but challenging Raphael about what seems to him, unaware of what is about to happen, about the seemingly unnecessary complexity of the natural world; this leads to doubt; I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lanape Indians felt similar doubts about the French settlers in their midst.
3. Adam is “a speaker whose relation to his materials is complicated both by his participation in his own narrative and by his essential ignorance of its final shape”. This seems pretty modernist to me, which is surprising; but I may be misinterpreting Scherer here. In any case, the speaker in Kempf’s poem is likewise an observer, and a participant, as are all of us in contemporary society.
The passage that seems most relevant: “Adam both derives from and is Hamlet’s original. Hamlet is what Adam will sound like after the goodly frame has shrunk to the sterile promontory.” And so we have Kempf’s speaker, what Michaux will sound like, if he were here, seeing the goodly frame polluted and stripped bare to make it yield every possible nickel. And we stand beside him and see our sin played out. ]

If I’m interpreting Milton correctly, the pre-Fall Adam is marvelling at the splendor of the universe and asking the angel Raphael how it works. Hamlet’s approach is distinctly different: he recognizes the marvels of the universe, but mourns them as he is unable to appreciate them in his state of mind; the earth has become “a sterile promontory.” This seems more pertinent to the speaker’s frame of mind, yet Kempf chose to stick with Milton; is he assuming the connection will be made?

In any event, both uses of the phrase deal with beauty, and loss of that beauty; Adam before, and Hamlet after that loss. Maybe it’s about point-of-view: the Lanape, and Michaux, would have seen the glory of the earth without knowing the Fall was coming, a la Milton; today, we imagine it, a la Hamlet.

Our speaker returns to Milton, to the pre-Fall tour of the universe, and we again see him in awe. But another element is woven in, some acknowledgment of what the Lanape Indians might have felt.

How for Adam the vast
globes rolling in their sky lanes, & comets
& stars & “space incomprehensible”
between the moon & Sirius exist
merely—oh, & here he is particularly
brilliant, listen—to “officiate light”
round this meager atom, the world. & round
its lemon trees & robins. Round his wife’s
hair in its evening coruscations. Her hand
in his hand. & the lush & ample breast
of the new world laid before them. For that,
he thinks, my God, what wouldn’t we butcher?

Just breathe a moment, and let that last line sink in.

One of the features of this poem that I found annoying was the use of ampersands instead of the word “and”. The symbols are used, particularly in the beginning of the poem, to begin sentences. I don’t see a clear pattern. I did a “paragraphed” version of the poem, to see if .& was an indication of a new thought, or what might be considered a stanza, but I don’t think so. I wonder if it’s another of those typographical signals, little tics to keep us on our toes, to pay attention when shortcuts are taken. And maybe there’s a sense of continuity, everything both blended together – the Lanape, Michaux’s park, the earth, we of the 21st century – and separated.

I’ve been delaying publication of this post to see if the article on “this goodly space” would come in; not yet. If it shows up, I’ll do an Addendum. But having read ahead, I can now say that I’ve been greatly surprised by three poems in this volume, poems that grew on me, revealing more and more as I read through them and read them again and thought about them. Slow reading has its rewards.

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