Back to Issue Twenty-Two.

lunch break

BY CHRISTOPHER KEMPF

 

We left our brushes.  In the garages
of the rich we feasted.  Or peeled the lids,
anyway, from cups of applesauce.  Slim
Jims.  Gas station nacho boats.  Oh, & we
delivered ourselves unto the pleasure
rest could be, & of the food & welcome
quiet from our radio, which would have,
since eight, blared its chorus of glam metal
& Clapton across the lawns the little
invisible sprinkler-heads of Gates Mills,
Ohio kept deathless.  We slept.  It seemed
from that distance almost noble, the work
of a morning.  Those magnificent rigs
of scaffolding we climbed to paint the eaves
three stories up, though it could appear so—
noble, that is, or heroic—only
at that still point around which history,
we knew, turned like a wheel.  It was simple,
our work, & dangerous.  A man died.  I
read Marx those summers, in which the rulers
were always lying down upon the backs
of their workers.  Were always, Marx wrote, just
one of those vast contradictions capital
is structured by.  To wit, its intervals
of splendor & madness.  The emergence—
in Florence, the fifteenth century—of credit
in the vaults of the Medici, while one
block south, scholars believe, the beggar-class
of the Renaissance waited.  Which meant, you
will have gathered, I was not one of them
really.  I washed their brushes.  At lunch break
I folded drop-cloths & swept our garbage
from the floors of the bourgeoisie, a word
Marx used to explain it was the last time,
those summers, I would feel my power rise
inside me like a wave.  They were the summers
construction ended.  I left each fall.

 

 

the flower explosion

BY CHRISTOPHER KEMPF

 

Such, anyway, was the phrase
the newscaster used—two
     airplanes, geraniums

blooming up there
in the clear, he called it,
     blue.  Beauty,

he meant, is at its sharpest set
off in high-relief from the backdrop tragedy
     provides.  In Christ

Majestic, for instance, etched
above the portal at Chartres Cathedral, He
     sits resplendent condemning

in a fold of light the writhing
damned.  Dominions
     of angels adore Him. & aren't

they all, explosions, mostly
floral?  Flames shining. It is like,
     another said, confetti

raining.  Paper
like a dirty parade.  Picture
     someone's mother, who loved,

as yours does perhaps, puzzles
& Scrabble & to walk
     the lake path on Sundays, breaking

suddenly into a cloud
of texture & color.  Who just
     as the flight attendants instructed buckled

her seatbelt.  On beauty
like that the fire fed.  Empathy
     flared.  Flowers, botanists believe,

birthed themselves petals
first from mutations in the gene codes of ferns.  Before
     Christ then, roses

rose.  Amaryllis
lifted its trumpets.  One
     morning orchids

covered the flood plains.  The people
of earth, who did not,
     strictly speaking, exist yet, wept

then at the blanket
of purples & yellows spread
     out before them, though never,

of course, considering
that inside the aster's sun another
     darker blossoming existed.  This,

I mean, was the season the seed
that would kill us all evolved.  Or call it
     metastasized.  Inside

my cousin Barbara's brain stem, cells
her doctors are calling,
     as of yesterday, stage

four, flower
& spread, every
     one of them descended,

they tell us, from that early
Devonian-era explosion
     of life.  Little wonder,

then, that among
the quince & dahlias a monster
     was born botany

knows now as the corpse plant.  Whose petals,
that is, whose ridged
     bell-like spathe gave

off for its predators precisely
the smell of rotting meat.  We
     are always that.  Spectacular,

isn't it, the arrangement
of flowers around a body?  How often
     they can mean things

like the blood of Christ
is shed for you, for instance, or in
     my Father's house

there are many dwelling places. Stage
four means the cancer, my cousin
     explains, has spread

widely in the body's tissues, a system
of classification we have made
     to picture for ourselves the senseless

proliferation of life around our dying
star. So too our terror
     alert system's spectrum

of multi-colored warnings.  To which,
when it was over, knowing,
     even, its greens

& blues could not protect us, we turned
anyway, verbena
     tilting toward the sun. For severe

risk, red.  For elevated,
yellow.  A swelling
     palette of color is what

some astronomers consider the universe
to be.  Bright extension.  A bouquet,
     say, of fire & ash opening

its petals to whatever
other explosion is beyond
     this one then shutting.

 

 

Kempf 22

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 has work in Gettysburg ReviewKenyon ReviewThe New RepublicPEN America, and Ploughshares, among other places. He is currently a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Chicago, and more of his work is available at www.christopherkempf.com. Christopher's poem, "Lunch Break," borrows a line from B.H. Fairchild.

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