Christopher Kempf

November 24, 2018 Kempf Christopher


Only with such care could history
take form. For years
workers scraped rotted acrylic

from the canvas. Accretions
of bug frass. For years
they in-painted the fields & generals, then,

with surgical instruments, sewed in
a fiberglass corset, hung the thing
like a gown so we

could admire from a platform the order
in Pickett’s death parade. Neat
lines marching in echelon. Perspective

like a minor god’s. We have come
this weekend to believe this. That we,
from a certain angle, made clean

in the workers’ emulsions, are one
in our manicured history. We could be
at the beach. We

could be at the Blue & Gray getting drunk
on three-dollar margaritas, “Tequila Sunrise”
playing on the TouchTunes, the usual

townies beginning to sway. So we are
obedient citizens today. We lean out
above the guns & wagons the workers

have added around the platform, fake
horsepaths winding off
toward the hem of the painting. Impossible,

a Boston newspaper reported
at the unveiling, to say
where the illusion begins. A veteran—

I will show you where I stood.
You see this
was before the internet. No satellite

or drone lowered its camera
yet to the field’s frenzy. When men marched
back to their campsites, they could know,

of battle, barely more
than the curtain of musket smoke
they had moved inside, the smell

of the man beside them. There,
though, around the bonfire
of their grief, they pieced their stories

into narrative. This one,
he swears, saw a pair
of Union lieutenants torn clean

from their horses by grapeshot. Someone
watched the ghost of Stonewall Jackson
weeping near the Peach Orchard. Just so,

the docent tells us, the workers
stitched the painting’s eighteen panels
together to a landscape. Size

of a football field. A flag
they named for a tilt-a-whirl. What more
could we honor ourselves so rightly

with? Like a ride,
we exit through the entrance. To mend it
completely they sewed back the sky.

Christopher Kempf is the author of Late in the Empire of Men, which won the 2015 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 is currently a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Chicago.