Unfinished

By Richard Schiffman

Featured Image: “Houses of Parliament, London” by Claude Monet

“It is not known why they were not finished,”
the curator noted of two hundred later canvases.
Turner’s work becoming increasingly unhinged—
cyclonic sunbursts, hills skipping like rams, crepuscular
curtains, reeling cliffs and brimstoned cities.

“I did not paint it to be understood.”
Was he mad, as some critics alleged?
Were these “mere freaks of chromomania,”
posters of a private apocalypse, flotsam
and jetsam from the shipwreck of a soul?

“I only wish I had any color to make them blacker.”
A glutton for whirlwinds and monster blizzards,
snow funnels and conflagrations. The lakes abysmal,
the seascapes either black or blinding—
a roller coaster few Victorians could ride.

“Indistinctness is my forte.”
Prophet for a world unravelling at the speed of light.
With hands as “fast as lightning,” when he sketched,
organs of creation, and equally destruction,
all churned together in the cement mixer of his palette.

“It is not known why they were not finished.”
Yet surely he knew that finishing would be a lie
in a world where the waxing / waning moon
is unfinished, the river ends, but does not finish,
nor the bronking sea, nor the calving sea-ice, nor life itself, which only knows—
again and again and again—how
to begin.


Richard Schiffman is an environmental reporter, poet, and author of two biographies. In addition to the New Ohio Review his poems have appeared on the BBC, in the Alaska Quarterly, the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, Writer’s Almanac, This American Life in Poetry, Verse Daily and other publications. His first poetry collection “What the Dust Doesn’t Know” was published in 2017 by Salmon Poetry.

Originally appeared in NOR 11.

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