Gettysburg Review
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Christopher Kempf

Michaux State Forest, New Year’s

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. Except,
of course, someone, we notice, has just this
morning cleared the fallen mulberry tree
from the trail, & someone, we know, has worked
all month at the little plaque-like nameplates
for oak & honeysuckle, has rendered, we
can see, their intricate arboreal
branch-work with all the gaudy reverence
of an amateur. & aren’t we? It was
the French who began such labor. Who came
south with their fur trade, & who carried here
the sextants & compasses & their bug
for the new science, with which, I was taught
in the sixth grade, they lopped & divided
& named & measured & mapped the atlas
of the marvelous world. It must have been
a kind of paradise then, no? Its crows
would eat from your hand. Its hickory trees
bore such fruit, reports say, Stéphane Michaux
lived all winter on their plenty. The French
imagined their future—children laughing,
democracy, et cetera. Our trail
turns west, & we follow, now, through the sedge
& crusted snow, to a bluff beyond which,
we observe, the stubbled fields fall away
toward Pittsburgh & Cleveland. & we can see
our breath as it pools & vanishes. Deer
flee. 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. 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. & we could understand this,
could we not? 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. We make our way
back, together, through the honeysuckle
& alders, our garden’s great beasts shifting
in their warrens, the river’s ice floes
slipping, like us, out to that fallen world
where, today, we will watch the recordings
of some marvelous ball dropping, again,
through the old year’s last seconds. Its smallness—
that’s what gets him. 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?

Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the Levis Prize from Four Way Books.  Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, he lives in Cincinnati and is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Chicago.

Michaux State Forest, New Year’s appears in our Summer 2016 issue.