The Promise of Light
after the painting "Tornado over St. Paul” by Julius Holm
After the treetops have slowed their mad dance
and the charcoal-black funnel has finished
drilling the bluffs over the great river, a house
painter, hoping for once to paint something
other than plaster or clapboard, buys a souvenir
stereograph card of that day. On the card,
sunlight crashes against churches
and south-facing storefronts and the city
seems ready to reemerge to mend fences,
gather debris, and brush dirt from soaked brick
and timber sticky with creosote. But the card shows
the funnel growing tree-like, without knot or twist,
over the rooftops. Clouds bloom like soot
from a candle held too close to paper.
Miles of haze and dust feed a blanketing smudge.
The painter’s heart pours into the darkness
of the funnel. It is an unmovable iron
blot. It seems the city will be undone
by the weight of air. He buys a small brush
to shape on canvas the cracks of warehouse slats.
He mixes a dark red for the grain elevator
and shapes the skyline with the typical
midwestern jaggedness, the horizon pierced
by five spires and a tree line. He takes care
to match the cream of limestone, the warm
brown of brickwork. He paints rows of windows
one by one and so on for every story
of each office building, embellishing them
just enough that they seem haunted
by the faint shadows of concerned onlookers.
But to ease the burden of memory, he’s left
the city of timber and stone empty.
The only presence other than the tipped
inkwell of the funnel is an oak standing
just above his painted signature,
alone against the tornado. But the truth
is that the funnel is distant. That day is distant.
If this was always his dream, he must also
always dream of the menace of wind.
He must dream that he is the oak,
well rooted and admired. He must dream of
creation and the dancing light of the new world,
how a little paint almost captures the promise
of this light before it’s swept away.