I Know a Man
Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body. By Walt Whitman.
Introduction by Zachary Turpin. Regan Arts. 220 pp. $25.95.
Collected Poems. By Robert Bly. Norton. 534 pp. $39.95.
Late in the Empire of Men. By Christopher Kempf. Four Way Books. 84 pp. $15.95.
“That is no country for old men,” William Butler Yeats once wrote, of another country and other men (“Sailing to Byzantium”). Today, with little evidence, a sizeable number of American men agree. Although men make, on average, $1 for every 80 cents paid to women, hold a disproportionately high number of political offices, and perform housework at rates far lower than their wives, many in today’s so-called “men’s rights movement” identify themselves as victims. These are the Proud Boys and pick-up artists, the anti-feminists and involuntary celibates (incels). Their marginal voices now echo in the mainstream. Until recently, it was the White House doing the echoing. Such were the amusements needed, as Yeats writes, “to keep a drowsy Emperor awake.”
The trouble, though, is that young men really are in trouble. Boys account for 70 percent of high school Ds and Fs; their female classmates become valedictorians by the same lopsided figure. Young men are likelier to live at home, develop addictions, become mass shooters, and commit suicide. A pandemic will likely accentuate these disparities. Men are, by many metrics, an at-risk demographic. The contemporary men’s movement, for all its failings, gets the diagnosis: boys are struggling. It is the treatment that they botch: men (and women) would thrive under traditional manhood. Nothing, I have learned, could be further from the truth. In 2016, I took a job at Wabash College, a men’s liberal arts college since 1832. I know a lot of guys. Some of them subscribe, particularly as freshmen, to traditional masculinity. They strive to be resilient and strong. They might suppress emotions. This can harm them when they face a mental health crisis. (Therapy is seen as weak.) The patriarchy, for these young men, is alive and well; it also has the potential to be lethal.
In the three books considered below, three poets—each writing from a different American century—offer their prescription for improving American masculinity. Walt Whitman, a self-described American Adam, thinks exercise, lean beef, and pugilism will do the trick. His recently discovered prose work, Manly Health and Training: To Teach the Science of a Sound and Beautiful Body, is a rollicking treatise that joins contemporary debates about toxic masculinity. In Robert Bly’s Collected Poems, the 93-year-old poet caps a career that, for a moment in the 1990s, was nearly eclipsed by his guru-like presence in the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement. He too is newly topical; how does he read post #MeToo? Christopher Kempf’s debut collection, Late in the Empire of Men, is a smart and engaging look at the poet’s own masculinity, missteps, and male friendships.
When Walt Whitman turned 200 on May 31, 2019, the hullabaloo was waiting. The Morgan Library and the New York Public Library both held exhibits. Bell’s Brewery debuted the first of its seven Leaves of Grass beers; “Song of Myself” is an IPA that, I soon discovered, could “intoxicate me also.” From coffee shops to conferences, libraries to lecture halls, Whitman’s bicentennial showed that he can still clear his own high bar for poetic success: “[t]he proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it” (Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass). This reception came as less of a surprise, however, than the gifts he gave us for his birthday.
These include Manly Health and Training, a series of articles, addressed to men, that first appeared in the New York Atlas in the fall of 1858. Whitman wrote them under the penname “Mose Velsor”—it mixes a male prophet and his mother’s maiden name—after Leaves of Grass’s initial flop. He probably did so for money. We have Zachary Turpin, now a professor at the University of Idaho, to thank for the book’s rediscovery. His introduction provides a useful primer to this strange admixture. Manly Health is “part self-help column” and part “essay on male beauty”; it is “a chauvinist screed,” a gathering of sports almanac tidbits, and a dodgy nod to eugenics (Turpin). Turpin should know. He has since discovered another lost Whitman book, The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, a novel first serialized in 1852. He is a Whitman Studies superstar.
Still, is Manly Health worth the time it takes to read its 47,000 words? I think so, even if, as Ted Genoways notes, it’s “steeped in pseudoscience” and we’ve already had to stomach enough of that—remember hydroxychloroquine?—for a lifetime. I’d recommend it for its prescience. Manly Health predicts the paleo diet (eat “an almost exclusive meat diet”), athleisure (“the shoe now worn specially by the base-ball players [should] be introduced for general use”), and the Fit Bit (“Walking is nature’s great physical energy”). It clarifies the link between self-help and self-celebration. The former dates back to Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. Whitman reminds us that beauty and self-love—instead of money and prestige—can be at its heart. The latter leads to love poems about the self and to self-elegies. All of this is native to our American shores.
I’d also recommend Manly Health on the strength of this edition. Richly illustrated with all manner of drawings and photos, the book is a visual history of 19th century New York. There are stereocards of stockyards, figure drawings that teach stretches, and one caricature of an “obese restaurant owner” who just decapitated a turtle. The illustrations offer verisimilitude and whimsy, a rare combination in academic texts. They also compensate for the book’s occasional faults. Why, for instance, does Turpin not indicate the spots in Manly Health where Whitman, by Turpin’s own admission, “plagiarizes shamelessly”? We are only reading this text because of its author; we ought to know how often (and where) that author disappears.
It is the book’s prescriptive masculinity, however, that kept me reading. Manly Health is a document that establishes, in exacting detail, Whitman’s ideal for a 19th century man. That ideal feels, at least to this reader, alternatingly progressive and problematic:
Reader! What is your ambition? We cannot, of course, tell; but one ambition, at any rate, you ought to have […] is the desire and determination to put your body in a healthy and sweet-blooded condition—to be a man, hearty, active, muscular, handsome—yes, handsome—for it is not for nothing that all through the human race there is the universal desire that the body should not only be well, but look well.
Second person address, rhetorical questions, an appeal to a Romantic “universal”: these are all hallmarks of the 1855 Leaves of Grass. It is the emphasis, however, on male beauty that caught my eye: handsome man. In America today, where ads and films so frequently feminize the erotic, it is refreshing to see male bodies “look well.” (Surely Whitman’s queerness plays a role here.) In Manly Health the male gaze turns repeatedly to other men: “[l]ook at the spread of his manly chest, on which also are flakes of muscle which rival those of the ox or horse.” These lines remind us that male nakedness, verboten on the big screen, can be cherished on the page.
Whitman is almost as progressive on men’s mental health. He notes that, though depression “equals any distress of the body,” men prefer to hide it behind “drinking and eating, joking and laughing.” This is as true today as it was in 1858. Only five percent of men seek mental health treatment. Many treat their wives or girlfriends as ersatz therapists, what Erin Rodgers calls “emotional gold-digging.” Most simply conceal their illness, doing so “at much higher rates than women” (Melanie Hamlett, Harper’s Bazaar). The effect? A generation of American men who think feelings are feminine or misread vulnerability as weakness. Whitman’s antidote for “the blues”? More exercise. It would be years, unfortunately, before therapists took up shop in Brooklyn.
It’s when Whitman turns his attention to fighting, however, that I found myself cringing. Manly Health includes a lengthy defense of bare-knuckle boxing—illegal then as it is now—following a much-publicized Canadian bout between John Heenan and John Morrissey:
Do we then, (perhaps the amazed reader asks,) openly countenance the training of men for prize-fighting? We answer, explicitly, we do [….] It is about time to meet the floods of mawkish milk and water that are poured out upon the land, and which, if justified and put in practice, would crowd America with nothing but puny and feeble men, obedient, pious—a race, half, or perhaps wholly emasculated.
When commentators today describe toxic masculinity, this is—at least in part—what they have in mind: a manhood that presupposes pain delivered and pain withstood. The alternative is a feeble or dissoluble nation (“mawkish milk and water”) of non-men (“emasculated”). For Whitman, boxing is not just an element of manly training, it is the element: “nothing short of a prize-fight,” he adds, will bring men to “systematic perfection.” Turpin reads this as foreknowledge of the Civil War. Whitman, he argues, hopes to fortify the North because “he wins who can ‘best stand grief.’”
Fair enough, but isn’t that same toxic masculinity a cause of war? There is no doubt, among contemporary historians, that the Confederacy fought the Civil War to preserve slavery. One race of men (white, Southern) died in record numbers so that it could enslave another, emasculating its men, raping countless wives and daughters. Frederick Douglass, a grown man called a “boy” by his masters, is at pains to reassert his manhood in Narrative of the Life. (He rarely mentions the women who helped him escape.) Harriet Jacobs is at pains, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, to evade her master’s sexual assaults. Then as now, male supremacy and white supremacy go hand in hand.
So, do we add toxic masculinity to Whitman’s list of faults? Probably. And yet I value Manly Health and Training for how it complicates, instead of simplifies, my take on Whitman and manhood. This feels like familiar ground. Though an abolitionist, Whitman rejected racial equality. Though an advocate for Native peoples and place names (Paumanok, not Long Island), he was a Western expansionist through and through. In reading Manly Health, I am reminded, once again, why scholars and readers gravitate to these famous lines from “Song of Myself” (1855):
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then…. I contradict myself;
I am large…. I contain multitudes.
Throughout the Civil War, Walt Whitman will contradict Mose Velsor, writing letters for soldiers, reading them books. In Manly Health he promotes fighting, but when the actual fighting commences, he adopts a role that is traditionally viewed as feminine: the bedside nurse. I see a similar, gender-flexible caregiving pop up, unexpectedly, among my students. Though our college’s motto echoes Whitman’s pugilism—“Wabash Always Fights”—our guys nurse each other through injuries and illness. In those glorious, pre-COVID flu seasons, they’d sit by each other’s beds.
It’s common today to judge our literary forebearers by today’s woke standards. I have done as much above. To do so benefits the marginalized voices those forebearers muffled. To do so reevaluates the canon anew. Still, I’m reminded, in reading the regrettable parts in Manly Health, of something the poet Linda Gregerson once said about Whitman. “We are all historical actors,” she notes, and “our own moral bearing will surely, a hundred years from now, be found severely wanting.” That strikes me as spot on. There’s much in Manly Health to celebrate. There’s much to revile. In weighing one against the other, it’s worth remembering that our grandchildren will do the same for us. Let us proceed sympathetically—not for Whitman’s sake, but for our own.
Robert Bly writes from a closer historical moment: the 20th century. His Collected Poems gathers fourteen books of poetry into one volume, from Silence in the Snowy Field (1962) to Talking into the Ear of the Donkey (2011). (Bly no longer makes public appearances; this is likely to be his last book.) It’s not his poetry, however, that connects him explicitly to masculinity. That distinction goes to Iron John: A Book About Men (1990), a self-help volume that spent 35 weeks as a New York Times best-seller. (Whitman would be jealous.) Based on Bly’s “ongoing work with men,” Iron John helped to popularize the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement. Think white, middle-aged men joining tribal drum circles. Think New Age retreats to the woods.
As Manly Health now reveals, Bly’s image of manhood extends, in meaningful ways, from Walt Whitman, a poet he calls “a rakish, rich parent.” Both see men essentially as fighters. Both see men as only essentialists could. In Iron John, Bly writes that contemporary men need “to reimagine […] the value of the warrior.” He claims that the foundation of “the male psyche is still as firm as it was twenty thousand years ago.” His proof for this? A hot stew of Jungian archetypes, armchair anthropology, and his readings of fables and myths. Men, he asserts, need to unlock their “warrior energy” lest that energy redirect itself into “street gangs, wife beating, drug violence,” or other social harms. Masculinity, therefore, is not a social construct, as most social scientists today believe, but a biological certainty: a quintessence, a form.
This is, excuse my bluntness, bunk. Cordelia Fine eviscerates the biological justification for traditional masculinity in Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society (2017). My students remind me, on a daily basis, that there are many masculinities, malleable and alive. (It’s the fixed, ubiquitous kind—resilient, stoic, strong—that some say they struggle to overcome.) Or just read Iron John, which, in an effort to redefine gender roles, winds up reaffirming the one we know too well. “A mother’s job,” Bly writes, “is to civilize the boy”; a “man who cannot defend his own space,” he opines, “cannot defend women and children.” Bly’s hypothetical household feels dated because men and women, Bly believes, are fixed like “pole[s] with [their] separate magnetic energy.” That’s the odd problem with essentialism: it fails the test of time.
Robert Bly is not Jordan Peterson. He’s not Gavin McInnes. He’s not Donald Trump. His Mythopoetic Men’s Movement is putatively apolitical; he would not “return men to the domineering […] repression of women” (Iron John). Still, his vision is implicitly regressive, his book poorly argued. It suffers from Bly’s propensity for grand, unsubstantiated proclamations. It reads fables selectively to fit his own ends. His retreats too, a 1990s phenomenon that surely paid the bills, had issues. Like another fad of the time, the Atlanta Braves’ “tomahawk chop,” they trafficked in red-face. Bly’s claim for an essential, elemental masculinity is, in the end, a defense of the status quo. To quote Michael Kimmel and Michael Kaufman’s feminist critique: “[w]e need more Ironing Johns, not more Iron Johns” (The Politics of Manhood, 1995).
Bly’s new Collected Poems gives us the chance to ask how such myths influenced the poetry of this mythopoetic man. We do so knowing that he has outlived almost all his contemporaries. When W.S. Merwin died in 2019, Bly became the last of the Deep Imagists. These are poets of the 1960s who valued free verse, stark diction, and figurative language that—in Bly’s famous phrasing—leaps. Critics rarely talk about gender when they talk about Deep Imagism, but, in rereading Silence in the Snowy Field, I saw it anew. Here, for instance, is “Old Boards”:
I love to see boards lying on the ground in early spring:
The ground beneath them is wet, and muddy—
Perhaps covered with chicken tracks—
And they are dry and eternal.
This is the wood one sees on the decks of ocean ships,
Wood that carries us far from land,
With a dryness of something used for simple tasks,
Like a horse’s tail.
This wood is like a man who has a simple life,
Living through the spring and winter on the ship of his own desire.
He sits on dry wood surrounded by half-melted snow
As the rooster walks away springily over the dampened hay.
Bly declares (“I love”) and observes (“boards lying on the ground”) before he leaps. The quotidian and rural are suffused with numinous potential; it takes imagination to discover the “decks of ocean ships.” For Bly, this leap involves the unconscious. A poetic image, he once wrote, is like a body “where psychic energy is free to move around.” I read his poems’ many sections and segments as finding more room for that energy to roam. This is all to say that, for a poem about discarded wood, “Old Boards” gets around. His boards cover chicken tracks and turn into ship decks. They carry “us far from land.” The critic I.A. Richards called the second part of any trope, the imagined part, the vehicle. (He called the real part, i.e. “old boards,” the tenor.) Robert Bly’s imagery justifies Richards’s term; he excels at taking his reader for a ride.
But what about gender? As the poem closes, Bly’s old boards becomes an “old man.” Sturdy, resilient, supportive: Bly’s boards hint at Bly’s ideal manhood. That man become a rooster who walks “springily over the dampened hay,” a cock of the walk. None of this is gender neutral, nor—I would argue—is Deep Imagism writ large. These poems imply an essential, incorruptible world that exists beyond our own. To leap into that world is to mimic, in poetic imagination, what Bly does with his mythopoetic men. He writes poems with “essential” images; he believes in a masculine essence. The deep image of the ’60s foreshadows the deep masculine (a term Bly uses) of the ’80s and ’90s; the guru is a poet by another name. Bly’s metaphors for manhood tend to be hardened, aged, and buried (Iron John). Like a deep image, they ask to be unearthed. Digging here is a lot like leaping. His readers and weekend retreaters excavate the pure.
Many have assailed Deep Imagism as cloyingly ancestral (Robert Pinsky) or misleadingly intuitive (Kevin Bushnell). Galway Kinnell, a Deep Image ally, writes that Bly’s “I” has “more in common with ancient Chinese poets” than a dude living, like Bly, in Minnesota. Let me admit my own preference: I still find these poems beautiful. Bly writes movingly about solitude and privacy—a later poem, “Six Winter Privacy Poems” (1973) delights—and I returned to his “quieter” books as I read this Collected Poems: The Man in the Black Coat Turns (1981), Loving a Woman in Two Worlds (1985), or Meditations on the Insatiable Soul (1994). Even for new readers, these are easy to spot. Bly’s books tend to be single-minded. The Light Around the Body (1967), for instance, is all protest and grotesquerie, all anti-Vietnam. In 1973 Bly writes that “the President lies […] / about the population of Chicago” (“The Teeth Mother Naked at Last”). That sounds familiar. In 2020, the President lied about the vote tally in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit.
This is all to say that what fails in gender politics—seeking the essential—can work, at least for me, in the lyric. Perhaps I, like Whitman, “contradict myself.” Perhaps I just like early Bly. As the years go by, Bly addresses gender more directly. Men behave badly, and draw criticism quickly, in this Collected Poems. I’m thinking of “Hearing Men Shout at Night on MacDougal Street” (1967) or “Come with Me” (1967), where dudes “have given up, and blame everything on the government.” In the 1980s he writes a few poems—“Four Ways of Knowledge” and “Fifty Men Sitting Together” among them—that rehash Iron John. Bly is most engaging, however, when elegizing his own absent father. Here is a section from “Visiting My Father” (1994):
Your head is still
East and west—
That body in you
Insisting on living
Is the old hawk
For whom the world
Darkens. If I
Am not with you
When you die,
That would be grievous
But just. That part
Of you cleaned
My bones more
Than once. But I
Will meet you
In the young hawk
Whom I see
You and me.
To its credit Iron John calls out fathers “who are not really doing their job.” Still, this absence hits closer to home. Bly excels at enjambment, but did he ever write them as withering as “If I am not with you / When you die, / That would be grievous / but just”? It is a grim kind of payback. The mythopoets called the effects of paternal neglect the “father wound.” But this poem localizes, in grief, what Bly merely explains—and blames on industrialization—in prose. The final image is a self-critique. Bly’s father will be reborn in a hawk’s predation; Bly feels that predation inside himself. His father taught it to him. His father “cleaned / [his] bones.” The cycle of abuse turns and turns.
I often found myself, in reading this Collected Poems, wishing that Bly had redirected all his thoughts on masculinity into his poems. There is room, say, in “Finding the Father,” a prose poem from 1977 about a lost dad, for rich ambiguity. That room shrinks when Bly quotes the same poem in Iron John. Thankfully, in the last stage of his career, his poems require no apology or gloss. These are the Americanized ghazals of The Night Abraham Called to the Stars (2001) and its superior follow-up, My Sentence Was a Thousand Years of Joy (2005). If early Bly revels in nature, late Bly embraces culture; if early Bly values solitude, late Bly is “crowded with friends and raucous with cries and song” (Roger Gilbert). These are smart, allusive, and energetic poems, written in tercets, six per poem. The tercets are all syntactically complete; the poems pinball the reader through allusions and associations. They wink. Here are three closing stanzas:
If we’re already so close to death, why should we complain?
Robert, you’ve climbed so many trees to reach the nests.
It’s all right if you grow your wings on the way down.
Four times this month I have dreamt I am
A murderer; and I am. These lines are paper boats
Set out to float on the sea of repentance.
(“The Pelicans at White Horse Key”)
Robert, this poem will soon be over; and you
Are like a twig trembling on the lip of the falls.
Like a note of music, you are about to become nothing.
(“The Pistachio Nut”)
Although Bly usually opts out of the ghazal’s traditional ending—an invocation to the poet, by name—I’m partial to the 16 poems in My Sentence where Bly pops up, irreverent and self-effacing, in his finale. Here he’s a fledgling, there a twig. Readings these ghazals is like shuffling a deck of cards, only to discover that someone tossed ten jokers into the deck. Deal me in.
With so many Robert Blys gathered at last (and in full) between two covers, it’s hard not to recommend this Collected Poems. Arranged chronologically, with no more apparatuses than an index and acknowledgements, the book allows its poems to stand on their own. They do. The early Deep Image poems remain crystalline and talismanic. They let readers test the pleasure of doing nothing at all. Is it okay to “think of a horse wandering about sleeplessly” and then slip into dream (“Night”)? Can you ask “[w]hat did I do today?”—Bly does repeatedly—and be content with this answer: watched the world? One poem is simply called “Another Doing Nothing Poem” (1973). His prose poems look for looking’s sake. It’s an act that men, as Bly knows, often refuse. “Not to the mother of solitude will I give myself,” nor to
[…] the mother
Of the downcast face, nor the mother of the suffering of death;
Not to the mother of the night full of crickets,
Nor the mother of the open fields, nor the mother of Christ
he writes in a rare dramatic monologue, “The Busy Man Speaks.” This shocks us because, whether in business or busyness, one task or multiple, traditional masculinity prizes productivity. It treats “the night full of crickets” as a dalliance, open fields as places of work. (The “Busy Man” only gives himself to “the steel of money.”) But like Whitman or Thoreau, Robert Bly is an American loafer. He would rather be “an inspector of snowstorms” than tend to a farm (Walden). It’s poetry that he produces. His Collected Poems is 534 pages long. Norton prints two to three poems per page.
This reminds me what Bly gets right about masculinity: the initiation. Forget the biological explanation for its existence; toss away the warrior tropes. (Bly, to his credit, told his audiences that his warriors were metaphoric.) Young men often seek older men to shepherd them into adulthood. Lacking role models, they falter. Of those who join hate groups, nearly all were abandoned by their fathers, Kimmel notes in Healing from Hate (2018). Robert Bly was never my poetic “father,” but in rereading him I’m reminded that I had one: an older male poet who showed me, by example, that poetry could be for guys. This seems silly to admit today; American letters is still a worryingly fraternal affair. But as a bullied teen in the Cleveland suburbs, I thought poetry was for “sissies.” It helped to meet someone other than my parents—bless their feminist hearts—who gave me permission to keep on. When I started my M.F.A., the only guy in my cohort of ten, I did not question my masculinity. It had already expanded to include poems.
Christopher Kempf is from my generation, a poet who grew up, like I did, in Ohio. We both moved, for a time, to California. We both see, in contemporary America, an analog to ancient Rome. (We are, I should note, friendly.) It’s his engagement with masculinity, however, that drew me to this book. As its title implies, Late in the Empire of Men is that rare collection, by a white, heterosexual man, that scrutinizes and criticizes American manhood—and the poet’s manhood too. “A man, // after all, enters / myth only so many ways in this century,” Kempf writes; “Proficiency / at killing things is one” (“The Indianapolis 500”). This is just one of many quotable and distressingly topical lines. (I think of shootings in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton.) Kempf, I’m excited to say, is a poet whose lyricism and learning connect male violence to one of its most insidious sources: empire.
Empires are in abundant decline in this book, from an opening epigraph (Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West) to historical ruins (the pyramids), from wagon trains (the Oregon Trail) to highways West. Two American wars provide an imperial frame of reference: the first Gulf War that Kempf watched on TV with his sister, and the second, which claimed the lives of two friends. The book advances the following insight subtly and with great success: the American empire draws its power from a pool of masculine violence. Foreign wars extend the empire; our (mostly) male soldiers are its victims and its fuel. Kempf writes about these men with affectionate remorse. “We grow / the empire’s dead devotedly / here in Ohio,” he tells us, before explaining why Ohio men participate in their own demise. They are “made / to endure ruin / beautifully, like a man” (“Death of the Star High School Running Back”).
The line implies that this brand of masculinity—the stoic warrior—is not natural, as Bly would argue, but nurtured: “made / to endure.” Nor is it laudable, as Whitman might claim, but loathsome, and lethal. Kempf illustrates this beautifully in “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare”:
Not the smart bomb & boxes
of dead. The ex-box. The X-
marks-the-spot box. Not
the wedge of flag our neighbor
David came back as. That
night we fired
round after round at brown-
skinned, scarf-fitted pixels. In
high-resolution, the wound
blooming like a kiss. Call
of Duty—the digital,
Middle Eastern teenager toppling. Want
is rarely respectable. What
this century left us is just
this one way to be men.
“Can I write a poem about a first-person shooter?”: it’s a question I expect to hear from my all-male creative writing classes. The answer is yes but read this first. Punning and sonically playful, this excerpt shows an Iraqi coffin (“ex-box”) shapeshifting into one possible reason for that coffin’s use: the X-Box video game, Call of Duty. The negation (“Not”) remind us that this game is all simulacra—not real, per se, but a stimulant that might lead to real loss. Real loss does come, one stanza later, to the suburbs where that game thrives: “the wedge of flag our neighbor / David came back as.” Kempf, to his credit, does not excuse himself from this cycle. (He plays the game too.) This lifts the poem above mere accusation. It’s an attempt to atone. It’s also an attempt to find, as this 21st century continues, more than “one way to be men.”
This makes Late in the Empire of Men the most relevant book of those here reviewed. With male misbehavior on full display—men are less inclined than women to wear masks—Kempf’s poetry explores its possible causes and its definite effects. He writes about Internet porn (“Then it was finished. / Whimper. / Bang”) and his own STDs (see “Scabies”). He weaves personal, historical, and technological narratives into multi-layered poems, each of which runs, on average, two to three pages. In “Sutro Baths” he sees Pompeii in what’s left of a San Francisco spa, noting “the distant / edge of a city on the distant edge / of an empire on fire.” In “Bindery” he learns about the codex while watching Iraq’s “catalog of loss.” Writing in free verse, with mid-line breaks that maximize enjambments, he builds poems about two (or three or four) things at once. Syntax is a forte. I admire his ambition. I lost track of my favorite lines and the subjects explored.
What I do remember is a Whitmanic (and Bly-like) interest in American presidents. They are the putative leaders of the American Empire and remain—despite the 2016 popular vote and our female V.P.—all male. Kempf opens his book by sledding with his sister down a hill at the Harding Memorial, where “the numbed / earth [will] pull us toward” the 29th president. In “Gold Star Tree,” he tracks a spruce from a Pennsylvania tree farm to Pennsylvania Ave. Here are its final lines:
when they visit, can print
the date of your death, David,
on your metal star & sometimes,
perhaps, the President
on his way to the kitchen, will lift
his face to your radiance—raised
as you have been, David, in the boughs
of the state—& consider, O star
of wonder, star
of glory & blood, your brightest
leading, David. Still
A Christmas poem, an elegy, and a political critique, “Gold Star Tree” imagines a moment that we hope’ll happen in more than photo ops: a president reflects meaningfully on his war’s costs. Here it occurs because a “twenty-foot fir” has been adorned with the names of dead soldiers. They fill ornamental gold stars. I appreciate how Kempf, a civilian, tackles this subject matter without irony. I like how the star—an image so often propagandized or cheapened—feels both sacred and fresh. These stars are cosmic, patriotic, and seasonal. (The poem alludes to a Christmas carol, “We Three Kings” .) If the image of David in the “boughs / of the state” also recalls a popular nursery rhyme—like “Rock-A-Bye Baby,” this poem is about violence toward kids—then the closing sentence fragments bring one more president to mind: Abraham Lincoln, the “western fallen star” of Whitman’s great elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (1865). Kempf’s star, notably, represents a serviceman, not a head of state. Whitman would be proud.
So would fellow Ohioan and poet laureate of the blue-collar Midwest, James Wright. Like Wright, Kempf documents the culturally (and politically) dispossessed. When “[s]tadiums / of howling men [let] out / their rage on some small tribe / of boys,” I thought of Wright’s most famous poem, “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” (“Clearing the History”). But Kempf is also half historian, of both the nation and the self. In this he resembles Lowell. Many poems, for instance, are time-stamped with a 1990s childhood: “Oregon Trail” (the computer game), “Information Age” (the “whirr / & clicking” of a “hulking Macintosh”), or “In the ’90s.” Robert Hass is another influence. In the love poem “Missed Connections,” Kempf writes “our faces kissing, squinched up // like bats,” borrowing, perhaps too directly, from the last line of Hass’s “Happiness” (1997).
What faults I find here are fleeting. The gravitas of Kempf’s subject matter can lead to grandiose statements. The sentimental occasionally creeps in. Or a superlative might seem, upon second read, untrue. Of miniature bugs groomed from an ape, for instance, he writes “At one time // they were all we could imagine / of love” (“Scabies”). And while Kempf excels at conceits and interwoven plots, I can imagine, in future books, fewer tangled threads. A deeper criticism, relayed to me by a fellow poet, concerns the male gaze. Was it present, she asked—despite Kempf’s obvious feminism—in “Venice Beach”? There he watches “a pair of nearly perfect brunettes flex / & pose for each other” while they snap pics with iPhones. I read this passage as a critique of the male gaze; the girls adopt it to gain likes. But I am, like Kempf, a heterosexual man. When it comes to the male gaze, I might not, to quote Justice Potter Stewart, always “know it when I see it.”
None of this prevents Late in the Empire of Men from reveling in erotic love. This maps nicely onto the book’s geographic trajectory. The first poem takes place in Marion, Ohio; the last, “Pacific Standard,” looks back east to the time zone where “everyone / I know is asleep.” Midwestern sexual mores give way to Bay Area sex. And like other writers before him—Ronald Johnson, Richard Rodriguez—Kempf reads San Francisco as a latter-day Eden: fruitful, abundant, unclothed. The only problem? Eden is now endangered. Here is the start of “Dominion,” a love poem that opens with an epigraph from Genesis before taking a walk in the redwoods:
But to the trees we are,
like metaphor, mostly
extraneous, our language,
to them, the breath-
play of peasants. Picture
this world without us,
you say, the sick planet picked
clean—as by a kind
of divine wind—of ruin
& war. Of word.
It’s common today (and necessary) to write poems of pastoral upheaval, to reckon with the loss of a two-thousand-year-old trope. Climate change changes culture too. This can lead, paradoxically, to relief; “we are, like / metaphor, mostly / extraneous,” Kempf writes. Or we can relish, as the beloved does here in a “world without us,” the title of Alan Weisman’s fine book. But what poet ever thought metaphor extraneous? And how do we square our hypothetical erasure with the pleasures of reciprocal domination in bed? These are the questions Kempf asks in “Dominion,” and though the redwoods are stunning, dominating love wins. “I will tie you to [a] bed,” made of pinewood, he writes, in a moment of light BDSM, “& we / will make the frame whine.” Or, he boasts, “I / would be for you / like the railroad the ravager / of all of this.” This metaphor (well, a simile) is neither extraneous nor ecologically proper. But that, Kempf winks, is the point. Eden matters when you can share it with Adam or Eve.
I appreciate the honesty of Kempf as “the railroad the ravager.” We need these phallic reminders that western expansion has been cast as male. Think of robber barons (like Leland Stanford); think of buckskin explorers (like Lewis and Clark). The push to colonize, climb, or crest the next hillside—to go further than the last guy, whom you eclipse—is classically masculine. (“Go West, young man,” Horace Greeley wrote.) So too is the leisurely, 20th century substitute: the American road trip (think Kerouac). So too is the recklessness that can accompany both:
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,—John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
In Robert Creeley’s famous poem, “I Know a Man” (1962), the allure of the open road leads to wreckage. This is the same road where Walt Whitman “stop[s] some where waiting for you” (“Song of Myself”) or where Robert Bly “will waste more time” (“Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter”). But the young men in this poem feel trapped by “the darkness [that] sur- / rounds” them. Their options, they believe, are limited: “shall we & / why not, buy a goddamn big car.” They do the one thing they are able (or willing) to do: “drive.” They do it because they, as men, tell each other it is right: “drive, he sd.” That is a narrative of narrowly defined masculinity. It illustrates, in no uncertain terms, where such masculinity leads: collision. It is customary, I gather, to read “I Know a Man” as a poem of existential dread: “what // can we do against” atom bombs, the 20th century, or our own mortality? It’s that, but something more too. How many of us “know a man,” like “John” or the narrator, whose entitlement dooms him to disappointment? Whose damn-it-all-if-I-can’t-have-it-all approach is an obvious dead-end? Creeley does. So do Kempf, Bly, and Whitman. Each, in their own way, is asking men to “look / out where yr going.”
Derek Mong is the author of two poetry collections from Saturnalia Books—Other Romes (2011) and The Identity Thief (2018)—and a chapbook of Latin adaptations from Two Sylvias Press, The Ego and the Empiricist (2017). The Byron K. Trippet Assistant Professor of English at Wabash College, he holds degrees from Denison University, the University of Michigan, and Stanford. His poems appear widely: the Kenyon Review, Blackbird, Pleiades, At Length, Arion, and Verse Daily. He and his wife, Anne O. Fisher, received the 2018 Cliff Becker Translation Award for The Joyous Science: Selected Poems of Maxim Amelin (White Pine Press), and currently live with their son in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He’s a former Axton Fellow in Poetry at the University of Louisville and a Halls Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. Previous essays and reviews have appeared in Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review Online, and the Boston Globe.