Back to Issue Twenty-Two.

lunch break



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



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.


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 Christopher’s poem, “Lunch Break,” borrows a line from B.H. Fairchild.

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