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from Legends of Liberty Volume 1

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The Battle of Concord

By that rude bridge men formed up double file,
The company from Acton in the van.
Their bayonets cast beams—reverse sundials
Dissecting the empire’s diurnal span
That cast so many shadows on the globe.
Their cartridge boxes rattled with black toxin.
Then steel unsheathed the sun—a blinding strobe
That led the curving line ahead to box in
Unrivaled Reds, eclipsed against the sword
That Captain Isaac Davis lifted to the Lord.

A sickly babe was fastened to his bride
That morn when Acton heard of what was planned,
And Davis greeted minutemen inside
His kitchen, guns and tomahawks in hand.
As a pond teems beneath hard frozen spots,
He brooded over breakfast, still, then stood
Before his wife to seek her eyes with thoughts
Of love he’d meant to share but never could,
And said, “Take good care of the children, dear.”
He vanished, and she knew he’d never reappear.

A hundred redcoats watched the forest line
Advance now: dirty faces, branches, leaves
All strewn about their forms—men wrapped in vines
From setting off through underbrush, their loaves
Uncooked, cow udders dangling, hats all holed.
The Concord woods, though far from Dunsinane,
Hid shades of men evoking tales of old.
The Brits derailed into a jumbled train.
A shaking soldier let his finger slip.
A crack rang out; a Yankee felt his coat sleeve rip,

They saw the slit well up and start to weep.
The kneeling British, like a herd of bulls
That, noticing a hint of red, will sweep
Through streets, destroying shops and trampling skulls,
Unleashed their muzzles. Hosmer saw his kin,
Young Abner, take a bullet through his top.
A high ‘D’ pierced the sky and prickled skin
As Joseph watched the fifer spin and drop.
The shining sword that led the van went dark:
The eyes of Isaac Davis lost their mellow spark.

Shot through the heart, his artery spit out
Its bright warm memory on Thomas Thorp.
Tom would go on to see the poppies sprout
On Bunker Hill, the sunsets while onboard
His ship that weathered the Penobscot loss,
The steaming stains of footprints that would melt
The snow at Valley Forge as he licked moss,
The falling leaves at Yorktown—for he felt,
With every campaign’s color change, the trace
Of all that bright warm red upon his hands and face.

The smoke dispersed; The British saw the wood
Line still approaching, heard in that parade
The cry of ‘fire’ from front to rear that wooed
Bullets from barrels, sent to serenade
Two officers with promises of marriage
To God: their riddled jackets streamed a trail
Of rosy ribbons as behind a carriage
Of newlyweds, and, faces turning pale,
These young lieutenants, like a pair of doves,
Were joined in death and flew to coo on clouds above,

But dropped no olive branches down to wave.
Three privates rolled into the river, flailed
Like flies caught in a soup bowl’s viscous grave,
Then floated with the current that prevailed.
An Adam’s apple touched a twinkling gorget;
A bullet took a bite—so fell that star:
A captain who, in uniform, looked gorgeous,
Set out for birds to shop his flesh bazaar.
Death’s invitations don’t distinguish status:
Whether to high or low, she serves her favors gratis.

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Why Levi Preston Fought

While families ran, Lame Jason Russell hobbled
To guard the little home he called his castle.
He crouched behind a parapet he’d cobbled
From shingles, set to make this siege a hassle.
The troops inched towards his walls to make their intro:
First wading through the moat that needed weeding,
Then past the chamber pots poured from the window,
And on across the bridge of dirt, proceeding
To the front gate. Stout Russell fought their reach,
But, lanced by bayonets, they battered through the breach.

Each room of Russell’s house received its guests
With cold refreshments spewed from fizzing flutes.
One soldier lounged across the couch to rest.
Two sat facedown to dine on table fruit.
Three sprawled beside the fireplace to roast.
Four mattresses eased feet that blisters tortured.
The Yankees spared no comfort—gracious hosts!
They summoned soldiers out to Russell’s orchard,
Where men from Danvers, traveling for miles,
Could welcome company behind high apple piles.

They spit black seeds into red lumberjacks,
Who, waving bayonets like axes, chopped
Down minutemen to fill their burlap sacks.
Young Levi Preston, watching heads get cropped
When yielding, fled so not to be interred.
What made him fight? What stirred him from his roost?
A scholar asked him this years afterward.
Long have the low materialists deduced
Some economic root they can extract:
Was it the tea tax that oppressed him? The stamp act?

Preston had never seen a single stamp,
And always understood that none were sold.
His lips by drops of tea were never damp—
The boys threw that stuff overboard, all told.
He had some almanacs and the Good Book,
But never read Locke’s work on liberty.
To him, ‘class consciousness’ was something woke
By sophists keen to charge a fibber-fee.
Young man, here’s what his deeds that day were lent to:
He’d governed himself always—and he always meant to.

While Plato hailed philosophers as kings,
And Shelley urged that poets rule the earth,
Unlettered Preston praised the peace that springs
From farmers reigning over home and hearth.
They’d make the world no phantom of their rhyme
Or legislate forms intellectual,
Restaging history as pantomime
With revolutions intersexual.
The simple farmer seeks a simple state:
The work and love that make a humble acre great.

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Poet’s Notes

The events comprising this chapter were drawn mainly from accounts described in Paul Revere’s Ride by David Hackett Fischer, and Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, by George Daughan.

Levi Preston was one of the last survivors of the battle of Concord when, at the age of ninety-one, a young man named Mellen Chamberlain came to interview him. Recounting this interview fifty years later, Chamberlain (now a judge) told the Danvers Historical Society, “At the time of this conversation Captain Preston was a very old man…his words were not many, and with the decline of his faculties, there was not much method in his talk. But several points remain very distinctly in my memory.” These distinctive points seem to have varied somewhat, as Chamberlain gave a few different versions of the interview at different times. Below is one such version.

Chamberlain. Captain Preston, what made you go to the Concord fight?
Preston.  What did I go for?
Chamberlain.  Yes, my histories tell me that you men of the Revolution took up arms against ‘intolerable oppression.’ What was it?
Preston. Oppression? I didn’t feel any that I know of.
Chamberlain. Were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?
Preston.  I never saw any stamps, and I always understood that none were ever sold.
Chamberlain.  Well, what about the tea tax?
Preston. Tea tax! I never drank a drop of the stuff: the boys threw it all overboard.
Chamberlain. But I suppose you had been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?
Preston.  I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ Psalms, and Hymns and the almanacs.
Chamberlain.  Well, then, what was the matter?
Preston. Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.

.

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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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11 Responses

  1. James Sale

    I am a huge admirer of the work of ABB – and these are two fabulous extracts. He has the ability to constantly generate fresh ideas, to drive narrative, to deploy forms and meter and rhyme, to create vivid images, and more beside. If we simply look at the final stanza, we must be impressed the four lines – While Plato hailed philosophers as kings,
    And Shelley urged that poets rule the earth,
    Unlettered Preston praised the peace that springs
    From farmers reigning over home and hearth.
    – are so eloquently, and longingly, expressed. And then beyond them we realise that we are not just talking about the American War of Independence, but its reverberations into the present times: ‘With revolutions intersexual.’ Quite brilliant writing.

    Reply
    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Greatly appreciate your gracious comments and continual support, James.
      ‘Intersexual’ is of course not nearly as good a rhyme with ‘intellectual’ as Byron’s ‘hen pecked you all,’ but perhaps the satire makes up for it a bit. Neither is there really anything new here regarding the idealization of the agrarian lifestyle and the yeoman farmer, but as hardly any poets write about this anymore, much less embody it (Reid McGrath comes to mind), it seems a thing much in need of praising. Although I can attest to the oversimplification of the Jeffersonian ideal/myth (being descended from farmers and living around them), it is infinitely preferable to the dominant values being currently pushed upon us by depressed, self-loathing urban yuppies who collapse personality into subculture.

      Reply
    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Thanks for the compliment, I’m glad you liked it. For the germ of the idea about this, I must thank Evan Mantyk—in his essay that served as an introduction to Journal VII, he talked about how poets don’t write about war anymore. Not since WWI has poetry been written about war on any significant scale, mostly by the soldiers on the front lines. There is a free verse poet, Tim Miller, who did write a civil war epic a few years back, but it struggles to rise to the level even of mediocrity and is ‘epic’ in only the vaguest of terms. Miller is an exception, though, and I realized that Mr. Mantyk was right in a profound and disturbing way. A bit ironic that war, a dominant topic of poetry for millennia, became a dead topic in a century that witnessed the worst wars of all time. So I thought I would play a small part in trying to counter the awful trend of just writing about woke propaganda. Some others on the SCP site have also written some fine poems on martial valor, so thankfully it seems to be making a comeback.

      Reply
  2. Margaret Coats

    War is in the details. Or at least, personal war stories are. The first of these passages reminds me of stories I’ve heard from soldiers and civilians with experience of recent frontline warfare. It’s little things that an individual focuses on at the time, and later remembers best. What things these are, is a matter of chance rather than choice. Andrew, your choice of details and your skill at raw description and allusive metaphor bring historic Concord to life, seemingly in all the unsorted sensory impressions received by those who were there.

    Of course, the other part of war is “why.” The Levi Preston passage offers that. One dilemma of much warfare since World War II seems to be that private soldiers often don’t have any “why,” and for officers, what they do is just a career. Civilians in war-torn countries usually have a “why,” but it may be more difficult for future poets to express something as pertinent as Preston’s remarks. Giving the remarks here in both verse and prose shows how formal poetry shapes and sharpens expressed purpose. Keep up that legendary work!

    Reply
    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Thanks for your appreciation and insightful observations, Margaret. The day of April 19th, 1775 is notable for containing more firsthand accounts by the various participants and bystanders at Lexington and Concord than any other event in early American history, prior to the Civil War. There were so many fascinating anecdotes and personal stories I wanted to include in the chapter, but just didn’t have the space.

      I like your remark about careerist officers lacking a ‘why.’ This was exactly the dilemma of many of the British soldiers themselves, many of whom were criminals and street urchins pressed into service, and almost none of whom had any idea of what they were walking into that day. General Hugh Percy, the brilliant field commander who saved the fleeing redcoats from total annihilation after Concord, would eventually resign his command out of disgust with the way the war was being run. The British situation may of course be compared with America’s foreign intervention in Vietnam and the Middle East, as you suggest, or with Rome following the Punic Wars, when the virtues of a farmer-soldier like Horatius or Cincinnatus gave way to ambitious generals. Such are the motivational problems of running an empire.

      The note on Preston is one of many footnotes from the print version, but it would have been tedious to post all the relevant ones here. Probably it is tedious in the print version too, for anyone with less than a scholarly mindset.

      On an unrelated note, are any of your recent translation projects available on Amazon? Christine de Pizan, etc.

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Let me say I know little about the Middle East conflicts, but the Americans won that intervention in Vietnam. It was ultimately lost because we didn’t adhere to our part of the peace agreement. The South Vietnamese (especially those who had escaped from the North) knew why the war was being fought, but as the North was being supplied by Russia, we needed to equip the South. The peace treaty said we would replace military materiel taken or destroyed by renewed hostilities. But when the need arose, Congress didn’t fund it. Individuals and families are still fighting their own little battles to get out. Many die on the way.

      Maybe I should be writing some war poems, but on to the unrelated note. I am hoping to publish my oldest translation project (a ballade debate written by four knights) next year. It needs a lot of revision. But I just looked over my Christine de Pisan papers, and if you’re interested, I could send you The Tale of the Rose and a few lyrics that are in good shape. You don’t have to promise to read them. If you’d like to have the opportunity, tell Evan that I say you can have my e-mail address, and send me your US mail address.

      Reply
      • Andrew Benson Brown

        Thanks for clarifying that about Vietnam, wasn’t aware of that.

        You should write war poems, yes! So few women do this.

        Look forward to that ballade debate translation. I’ll get in touch with Evan soon, and I DO promise that I’ll read the Pisan lyrics.

  3. Michael Pietrack

    Andrew, you are a wonderful writer. Thanks for your contributions. I especially liked the second stanza:

    A sickly babe was fastened to his bride (what a way to say they had an infant.
    Creative. It says so much with so little real estate.)
    That morn when Acton heard of what was planned,
    And Davis greeted minutemen inside
    His kitchen, guns and tomahawks in hand. (Excellent.)
    As a pond teems beneath hard frozen spots,
    He brooded over breakfast, still, then stood (I caught brooded/breakfast and still/stood with a smile.)
    Before his wife to seek her eyes with thoughts (So much can be said with eye contact, and sometimes that look says it all.)
    Of love he’d meant to share but never could, (I can see this clearly as if I were watching a movie)
    And said, “Take good care of the children, dear.”
    He vanished, and she knew he’d never reappear. (Sad. True and sad. Bravery on both parts)

    In short, I’m a fan.

    Reply
    • Andrew Benson Brown

      Thanks for the appreciation, Michael. I’m glad you liked that stanza. The historian David Hackett Fischer gives a novelistic description of the account that Isaac Davis’s wife Hannah Brown left regarding their final parting: “my husband said but little that morning. He seemed serious and thoughtful, but never seemed to hesitate as to the course of his duty.” (Paul Revere’s Ride, p. 166). Fischer then tells us that Hannah was “overwhelmed by an agony of emptiness and despair” as she watched him leave, and that “by some mysterious power of intuition, she knew she would never see him again.” A poignant and heartbreaking scene.

      Reply

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