Chapter I

Who sings of arms these days? Or even men?
The seed of Adam’s tucked inside Eve’s apple,
And sits not taking root—his defect’s been
Apparent since equality’s long grapple.
Poor Satan garners sympathy and tears:
He was oppressed, a proletarian
So cruelly cast from heaven’s privileged spheres
By that unjust Authoritarian.
Our age has lost all its affinity
For epic tales of toxic masculinity.

The classic heroes had a change of heart.
Achilles has turned pacifist—it dawned
On him that killing’s wrong, though he still smarts
At that imperialist Agamemnon.
Aeneas sailed away from his new home;
He wasn’t going to found anything
That might one day become as mean as Rome.
Meek Jason scorned the fleece as empty bling.
And Godfrey of Bouillon? He realized
That Tasso had made him a tad idealized.

O Muse on high, help us reclaim what’s lost!
Conducting heaven’s choirs, you know how best
Our story should be sung, the ringing cost
Of liberty, and sacrifices blest
By the nobility of humankind.
Your harps will pluck no cacophonic offal
Heard by those citizens, tone-deaf and blind,
Who pledge allegiance to the cheapest brothel.
Where honor, valor, loyalty are slandered,
Utopias are raised devoid of building standards.

“Please not another nation-building epic,”
Complains the bitter cynic. “—What a bore!
Such lyrics of The State are so bathetic.
What propagandized, half-remembered lore!
When history is bloated into myth,
And truth is ravaged by barbaric bards
Besieging us with rhyme and meter’s width,
I’ll keep my distance at a hundred yards.”
To you who’d cut our happy flag to shreds,
Take care—you’re apt to deconstruct yourself instead.

The pessimists will whine, the misanthropes
Will sulk, the radicals protest and blast,
While nihilists abandon all their hope.
But those vacationers into the past
Who leave their axe at home, and honestly
Peruse the facts without resentment’s daze
That spurns forgiveness and its homilies,
Find little there to blame, and much to praise.
For deeds unprecedented were amix
That year of Seventeen and Seventy plus Six.

It was, behind the Anno Domini,
(When Zeus was cradle-robbed of new disciples)
The most momentous year in history:
Across the sea, a Scottish bachelor cycles
The grumbling hive of men about his brain,
And dips his quill into their honeycomb
To dream up buzzing, bustling, blooming plains
That a beekeeper’s covered hand condones.
The Wealth of Nations draws the world’s enchantment
While every country vies to seek its own advancement.

Once more revolving over the Atlantic,
The sun uncoils its rising tendrils on
A serpent, sinuous and writhing frantic
Along the coast, by venomed mother spawned
And severed into thirteen lone segments:
Some basking in the fields where grain is sown,
Some hiding in the leaves where lumber’s bent,
Some shaded under shrubs where cotton’s grown,
While Pennsylvania, laired in mountain laurel,
Tries stitching them together midst a violent quarrel.

A clock strikes July Fourth with fine precision
And chimes a bell in Philadelphia
That rings a note with a euphoric vision
Matching the oracle of Delphi’s awe.
There in a hot and humid chamber they
Arrive: the greatest men that ever sired
A piece of land, a babe whose soubriquet,
“Old Uncle Sam,” had yet to be acquired.
A form of government without exception
Is this day pregnant by immaculate conception.

The Sons of Liberty sit to the left,
Their founder, Samuel Adams, looking rough—
He’d had a few beers, maybe, not bereft
Of his failed brewing company’s good stuff.
Among them, too, sits brilliant Doctor Rush—
He’d rather talk about the British illness
Than practice medical research as such,
And cries for England’s bloodletting with shrillness.
Against a despot they do now connive,
Attention fixed upon a central group of five.

John Adams stands, his hand upon his hip,
Terse Roger Sherman next, then Livingston
(Whose fame by huddling neighbors is outstripped),
Ben Franklin fourth (the oldest living one),
With Jefferson in front, holding a draft
Of their new document before the Congress,
The product of a fortnight’s furious craft,
The meaning of which all are fully conscious.
But wait, is Tom there stepping on John’s shoe?
No no, they’re still good friends—that angle’s misconstrued.

John Hancock sits with legs crossed at the table
Right, readying to reach and be the first
To fix his signature with flourish sable
On this grand paper that would soon be cursed
By George the Third in front of Parliament.
More rise to sign this labor writ with love,
Proclaiming reasons for their armament
Against the royal declaration of
Strife, misery, lawsuits and crappiness:
“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

—At least, this is the picture Trumbull’s painting
Shows (though I may have added a few bits).
A ceremony’s far more entertaining
Than delegates who wander in and flit
About through months to add names here and there,
But never in a single afternoon.
Oh well, adverse accounts have been compared;
A version that agrees can’t be exhumed.
Just license artists like they’re private sleuths:
False surfaces, once magnified, see larger truths.

The day we celebrate our independence—
With guns, games, bonfires, sports and shows, parades,
Is threatened in our time by nonattendance.
It’s sad, the thing’s become a mere charade:
Drug addicts, losers, derelicts and boozers,
Illuming end to end their fairyland
Where every beggar has become a chooser,
Appending gripes & groans with ampersands.
At picnics (lavish barbeques-turned-orgies)
These beatniks ravish ingénues below their forties.

“It’s bitter, cruel, and ugly dying for—um,
One’s country (nasty word)…but it’s so dulcet
And beautiful expiring with decorum
In bed, avoiding what could get your skull split,
And spending every sole ecstatic moment
All gassed up on some fresh green dope—enjoying
Life! When our parents mixed their genes, they co-lent
Their fond desire to have some fun.”
____—How cloying.
You fool, how can you have a life to waste
If you don’t fight to freely exercise bad taste?

Don’t take for granted freedom’s hard-won prize;
There was time when many were afraid
Our storm-blown ship of state would sure capsize.
A musket clogged, an order disobeyed,
One factor wrong in a decisive battle
Might have dismantled all our pinnacles,
And we’d still be the tyrant George’s chattel.
Without the Declaration’s principles
Which bow in reverence to the Creator
Whose helping hand is seen in what comes later.

 

 

Poet’s note: the sixth stanza contains a kind of obscure but clearly referenced allusion to Mandeville’s poem which was an influence on Adam Smith; though the title of the book is the Fable of the Bees, the satirical poem contained within the book is actually called “The Grumbling Hive.”

Andrew Benson Brown was a graduate student at George Mason University before taking too many classes outside his discipline coincided with the reality of Debt. He now works as a children’s caseworker in rural Missouri. In his spare time he reads obscure classics, writes things of little market value, and exercises far more than is befitting for a modern intellectual.

 


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12 Responses

  1. James A. Tweedie

    Three thoughts

    1. So far, this epic is unfolding like a verbal Bayeaux Tapestry infused with the keen social observations of a 21st century de Tocqueville, reflecting the inspired beauty and eloquence of both.

    2. I commend Mr. Brown for resisting the impulse to scatter exclamation marks throughout the poem. This gave me the pleasure of inserting them myself in the many places where it would have been clearly justified for him to have done so.

    3. The reference to Adam Smith brought back memories of the Canongate Church on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile where I worshiped for nine months back in the late 1970s. Both Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace are within the bounds of its parish making it the church of record for the British king or queen when they are in residence. With the approach of Easter, I also recall sitting in the royal pew next to the Governor of the Castle in his full, formal military regalia as two members of the church choir on that memorable morning. I mention this because Adam Smith (along with the hymn writer Horatius Bonar, the poet Robert Fergusson, the artist brothers John and Alexander Runciman, and Mary Queen of Scots’ secretary, David Rizzio) is buried in the adjoining graveyard.

    I look forward to Chapter II.

    Reply
    • A.B. Brown

      It’s funny, I had a few more exclamation marks originally, but on further editing I changed them to periods.

      That sounds like an amazing church. Cathedrals are the greatest places on earth. I’m quite envious that you hobnob with castle lords and sit in royal pews. Due to a prenatal defect in my destiny, I have been having a difficult time rising in the world.

      I myself will never be royalty, though I hope someday to beget a member of the local school board.

      Reply
      • James A. Tweedie

        A.B.

        Canongate Kirk is hardly a cathedral! (note the exclamation mark). That term is often applied to St. Gile’s Kirk up the High Street a ways, but that is a misnomer as well, given that the Church of Scotland does not have bishops and, therefore, has no cathedrals. (Although it was a cathedral before John Knox and the Scottish reformers got their hands on it). And any hobnobbing I did back in those days was as a lowly student at the University of Edinburgh, New College. Even so, Presbyterians are self-consciously egalitarian. For example, under the Acts of Union 1707, English monarchs, while in England, are head of the Church of England. When they cross the border into Scotland, they become a MEMBER of the Church of Scotland. At least on paper!

        Also, in my entire life, an aspiration to run for the local school board crossed my mind only once. After which I returned to sanity.

        My three grown children are all peasants.

      • A.B. Brown

        Thanks for clarifying. Interesting that English monarchs have dual fluctuating membership like that. I googled some pictures of Canongate Kirk; it looks very old and grand.
        I actually have a pew story of my own! When I visited Philadelphia for my brother’s wedding five years back, I toured the historic Christ’s Church, which I believe is episcopalian, and had the great fortune to sit in George Washington’s pew. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but I actually closed my eyes and tried to harness his spirit. My wife snapped a silly picture of me which to my dismay I’ve since lost, and I imagine the tour guide thought I was a weirdo (I am). Ben Franklin, Betsy Ross, and other notables also had designated pews there, and the Continental Congress worshipped there in 1776. Those few days of touring old Philadelphia, Liberty Hall, Valley Forge, etc, was very inspiring, but that in particular was a great spiritual moment for me.
        I’m glad our talk of churches stoked this memory, because I think I may have to set a stanza or two here in a future chapter.

  2. Joseph S. Salemi

    Using English sonnets as stanzas works out quite nicely here. Also, Brown has the majority of his lines (in this section, at least) end masculine, and he reserves most feminine endings for the second half of the stanza. This makes for a very tight structure that is a pure pleasure to read.

    Moreover, this poet isn’t afraid to kick ass. There’s a lot of language in these verses that will send snowflakes screaming to their support groups. Bravo, Mr. Brown.

    Reply
  3. A.B. Brown

    Grazie, Dr. Salemi.

    The English sonnet as a narrative vehicle doesn’t propel the reader along quite as well as terza or ottava rima, but I wanted to choose a stanza form that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been done in epic before.

    I actually didn’t give any conscious thought to avoiding feminine rhymes early in the stanza, but I will from now on. I’m starting to rewrite some lines in chapter 2 so there are none at least in the first ABAB scheme.

    Reply
  4. C.B. Anderson

    Though there were some exquisite rhymes here (dulcet/skull split for example), many of the rhymes were a bit tenuous, with a lot of assonance where perfect consonance would have been more desirable. Also, a number of lines overflowed into what might be construed as alexandrines, so, for me, it was not always easy to grok your structural master plan. Another funny thing: Not a single stanza conformed to the structure of an English sonnet; just an octet and a couplet — never a sestet. Nonetheless, I found the poem readable and engaging and would gladly read future installments.

    Reply
    • A.B. Brown

      It’s a modified English sonnet with the third stanza cut out and the last line pushed out to an alexandrine (took that bit from Spencer); I thought a fourteen-line stanza would be too long and drag the narrative, though I know that others like Pushkin have made it work.
      I only intended the final line of each stanza to be an alexandrine, though there are a lot of feminine rhymes, too many probably, that push the line out with an extra weak syllable.

      I submitted this piece right before my Milton one appeared on the site, so it didn’t benefit from the advice you and Monty gave me there about near rhymes (not to mention the double schwa of principles/pinnacles in the last stanza). Needless to say, I’m doing a lot less of “mixing mustard with cornflakes,” as Monty put it, and plan on rewriting some lines in this section. Part of the reason I was using near rhymes here is that I’m anticipating the problem of having to avoid repeating full rhymes as this thing gets longer (already running into this after about about only a hundred completed stanzas, though at least unlike poets of the past, I have the benefit of performing word searches to make the task less tedious). So, at least until I read the comments on my last piece, I was trying to come up with near rhymes to get around the problem.
      I was wondering about how translators of long Italian epics like the Divine Comedy or Jerusalem Delivered who translate those works faithfully but lack the same abundance of rhyme choices as Italian manage this; i.e., how acceptable it is in a long poem to repeat pure rhymes, and how often one could get away with doing it. My guess is there’s a vague rule of thumb such as, ‘not enough that it’s noticeable.’
      Milton said that rhyme was unnecessary for epics, but I’m thinking he just didn’t want to deal with this problem.

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Milton disliked rhyme on principle, although he did make use of it in his other poems. He believed that rhyme was an invention of the barbarous ages immediately following the fall of Rome. Since he was profoundly influenced by classical poetry, in particular the ancient epics of Homer, Vergil, and Lucan, he was never going to write Paradise Lost in anything except blank verse.

  5. A.B. Brown

    I’ve counted twelve pairs of near rhymes:

    Offal/brothel
    Epic/bathetic
    Myth/width
    Honestly/homilies
    Domini/history
    Disciples/cycles
    Enchantment/advancement
    Congress/conscious
    Painting/entertaining
    Afternoon/exhumed
    Orgies/forties
    Pinnacles/principles

    Mostly lazy convenience, I admit. Except for the lines ending in orgies/forties, which I think I’ll keep.

    Then there’s Philadelphia/Delphi’s awe. I’ve always pronounced it “dell fee,” though I’ve also heard it pronounced “dell fai.” Not sure if one is more correct than another, but even if my pronunciation is wrong I don’t think I’ll change this one. It took me a while to come up with.

    Reply
    • C.B. Anderson

      Take it from someone who grew up in Bucks County, PA, just a few miles north of Philadelphia. It’s pronounced FILL-uh-DELF-yuh. And that’s a piss-poor rhyme with “Delphi’s awe.” If you want to use near rhyme, then make it NEAR and not so far-fetched. As far as repeating perfect rhymes goes, keep them far apart, which, in an epic-length poem, shouldn’t be that hard. Back to near rhymes: I think that purpose/surface is rather nice; Albuquerque/difficulty is horrible; image/plumage and de rigueur/prefer are passable; do/truth and animals/damnable are execrable. This is just my opinion. Be wary of cheap retail rhymes such as deep/keeps and songs/wrong, the likes of which are pandemic, because they are a virus infecting many an otherwise well-thought-out rhyme scheme. Your poem is notable for its attention to the ironies and tragedies that afflict this grand experiment, and I would like to see it executed in the best possible manner, in accordance with the highest standards our tradition can muster.

      Reply
      • A.B. Brown

        Doing a lot of rewrites. I want this thing to be the best thing it can be, too. Thanks for telling it like it is and not sugarcoating, that’s how I get better.
        I read an article not too long ago about how the Philly accent is starting to fade because of millenials. One more thing to chalk up to my vapid generation.

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