Before the Storm

By Christopher Kempf

Featured Art: Storm Clouds by John Henry Twachtman

Birds fled. The city fell
quiet. Across
the night the neighbors raised
their glasses & together, gathered
on our porches, forms
in a Japanese landscape, we stared
up. Or was it
Turner the sky resembled? How every
late seascape became
for him, given
to opium & with his father’s
death, depression, a tempest
of motion & color. Clouds
roiling. The oils
of his tiny boats bleeding
out. Only,
he knew, the frame’s gilt edge
splits beauty from terror. Airplanes,
that night, climbed
from the city & steeply, fleeing
too the ruinous
wall of rain, banked
south. Schools, a step
ahead of the looming cataclysm,
closed. Newscasters
leaned forward into the wind & we, raising
our own glasses to the neighbors
drank. Dark
& Stormies. Sazeracs. We imagined
the city flooding. Mudslides
on Foothill Parkway. Prospero, fallen
from his dukedom, does it
all for pleasure he says, every
shipwrecked Milanese aristocrat, every
extravagant clipper cast
up in the pitch & tumult his rough
magic fashioned. That,
we know, is mostly
what the groundlings came for. To fancy
a world they would never see struck
low, & so
close, sometimes, as to feel even
on their faces the great
king’s spit. There is,
in catastrophe, a satisfaction
exceeding sex, psychologists
believe. Before
the storm the city
bristled. Bells
tolled. Before
the last helicopters cleared
Saigon, operatives
burned in a rooftop incinerator
the state’s documents. We watched
from our porches the planes
shudder & mount. On Merritt
Lake, the pelicans, frenzied,

Christopher Kempf is the author of WHAT THOUGH THE FIELD BE LOST (LSU, 2021) and LATE IN THE EMPIRE OF MEN (Four Way, 2017). He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Illinois.

Originally published in NOR 18: Fall 2015

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