“Flats; or, I Shot an Arrow Into the Air” by Christopher Kempf

Christopher Kempf


One calls it, a sign
off Interstate 80 explains,
a playa. We drive
our little rented Penske ahead
into the shimmering vastness, the flats
packed sodium, roadless, rumbling
beneath us, a couple
of stooped predator birds purring
on a calcified rock. Beyond them, men

in fireproof suits—science
fiction almost—move
carefully across the body
of their turbojet X-
1 rocket car. A crowd
of passing tourists traveling,
as we are, to Chicago perhaps,
or to California, has formed
here in their Saturns & Dodges to watch
now one of the men, the driver, climb
head-first into the glistening
machine. A circle
of fire flares
in the Galaxy engines then
it is gone.

When Bonneville, sponsored
by John Astor, advanced
across the salt plain invading,
in 1832, what was then
the Mexican west coast, he couldn’t
have imagined this emptiness
itself central
to his nation’s making. I mean
that at a black site south
of the highway planes
we do not know exist are whispering
to the ground beneath them their come-
hither hush-
now sounds
of destruction. Yucca

Mountain, I mean. Or the miles
of fiber optics monitoring,
say, Charlotte
Farnsworth, 70, from Eagan, Minnesota, & remotely
caching the data to a server
in Bluffdale, Utah. We took
those parts of us we are
ashamed of—oh nation
of exobyte & waterboard, of extraordinary
rendition—& hid them
in the blinding desert. & yes,

it is terrible how carefully
this century we can ravage a person
is what I know
I should be saying now, bound
for some new & glittering city I will begin
again in. Yes, it’s
unconscionable, I want to say, the way
we are built. But,

in the desert yesterday, men
with knives & a video camera recorded
themselves beheading—remember
that term?—a third
quivering civilian. He stands
in the four-minute clip clothed
in the kind of orange jumpsuit we use
still at Gitmo, & I know
there is a logic to this, but who didn’t
at that moment, revolted
at even the cleanest of news coverage, crave
plane enough to end it—again,
yes—or imagine flattening,
as I did, the desert
there until it was even
more Mars-like? In The Twilight
Zone episode 15, titled
by series creator Rod Serling “I Shot
an Arrow Into the Air,” a pair
of moon-bound astronauts crash-
lands on what they believe
is a massive, atmospherically
terrene asteroid. Packing,
in his space-age canteen, three
days worth of water, Donlin, mission
commander, is killed—is strangled
actually—by officer Corey. Of course
it is Earth they are on. He walks,
Corey, across
the rock’s suspiciously Western desert then,
in the distance, flickering
there in red lights a sign
for Reno, Nevada. A tract
of telephone poles. Always

at the heart of civilization, explains
Benjamin, exists
that same unconquerable urge
to dominate we came
from. Hunger
& bloodlust. The coming-
around now of those hunched birds we began
this with, remember? Enveloped
in salt, our lumbering
ten-foot Penske truck rumbles
back to the highway, a line
of shimmering asphalt we dropped
here in a desert men
believed they could escape from once. What
did we call it, Chicago?
California? Where
we are going we don’t
need roads.

Poets Respond
September 21, 2014

[download audio]


Christopher Kempf: “The poem, echoing several others in the series, addresses the most recent beheading carried out by ISIS, in this case that of British aid worker David Haines. Situating that tragedy within the broader context of advanced military technology and American imperialism, the poem attempts to suggest the ethical complexity not only of the United States’ response to these events but of American poetry’s own fraught witness to them.” (link)

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