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Lightning Ben

an excerpt from Legends of Liberty, Volume 2

Sing, muse! Bestow your gifts on—blah blah blah.
I opened my first book with that. You get
The point. Obliging poets need to draw
The paths of cosmic fate, to show their debt
To Heaven and their forebears. Really, though,
In almost all the epics ever written,
Their authors lead off with some silly throw
-back to antiquity, with which they’re smitten.
I promise—no Virgilian intros…
Only Homeric ones: Achillean! Impose.

~

Ben Franklin’s scientific senses swelled
When lightning struck his kite and killed him dead.
Onlookers swear his final breath expelled
A soul that lingered, flit about, and fled
To Hell. This fool had played with heaven’s fire
And quite deserved the fate he had received.
A person who’d conduct a test so dire
With hopes to not get burned was much deceived.
Some children ran up and began to poke
The crispy corpse, when lo!—Immortal Ben awoke.

He sat up, shook his head, and looked about.
His hair stood wild on end, his clothes were singed,
His face was flushed, his veins were bulging out.
A woman, seeing grey irises tinged
With yellow, fainted. Probing youngsters prone
To mischief screamed. A preacher yelled, “He deals
With demons!” Like a tree that sprouts full-grown
From fertile soil, Ben sprung upon his heels
And said with eager eccentricity,
“Eureka! I’ve discovered electricity.”

Men came with linen bags and brimming pails.
“Who set a fire?” yelled the Bucket Brigade.
Hospital staff, their pallid hats like sails,
Blew in: “Is someone wanting a band aid?”
A small police force beat anxiety
With brandished sticks: “Which culprit needs locked up?”
The Philosophical Society
Inquired: “What person’s deeds could be chalked up
To vices causing reasoning to flounder?”
Each group received its answer: their dynamic founder.

Ben’s shoes sent currents through the cobblestones
He’d paved. They rippled through the city grid,
Lighting the streetlamps he’d installed in zones
Of commerce—marvelous! Time to forbid
Whale hunting—burning oil was obsolete.
(This epic is environmentally
Aware). House windows, lit up from the street,
Showed mothers tucking, sentimentally,
Their children into bed, then blowing candles
Out—be careful! Curtains catch: disaster kindles.

The crowd was following as static zapped
Between them. “Au!” A German immigrant
Cried out. He shocked an Irishman, who slapped
A Scot, who jumped. A brawl was imminent.
Shops emptied. Taverns filled as the sun went
Down. Puritans from Boston echoed, “Ben’s
A witch!” Quakers replied: “Be tolerant.”
Benevolence, that binding good, will cleanse
Men’s souls who join the City of God—someday.
Till then, the one of Brotherly Love is here to stay.

The melted kite was trailing from a string,
All frazzled, stuck to Franklin’s shoe. It snapped
While closing his front door. An urchin ring
Fought for the remnants of the kite and clapped.
The mob went separate ways. There in the dark,
Ben peeked out through the window. No eavesdropping.
He lit a candle with a finger spark,
Then read a note that Deborah left: “Gone shopping.”
He sat down in his research laboratory
And tapped the frontal lobe of a memento mori.

.

.

Andrew Benson Brown has had poems and reviews published in a few journals. His epic-in-progress, Legends of Liberty, will chronicle the major events of the American Revolution if he lives to complete it. Though he writes history articles for American Essence magazine, he lists his primary occupation on official forms as ‘poet.’ He is, in other words, a vagabond.


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27 Responses

  1. James Sale

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha!!! More genius from the great mock-epic of modern times. I really don’t know what was funniest, but as an ex-Quaker I can say ‘Be tolerant’ struck a mighty chord. Love the linguistic feast in all this, and given its Byronic prototype, the special care and attention you pay to the absurd and superb rhyming: Bucket brigade/band aid? Yes. kindles/candles? Why not – all part of the extravagant fun. can’t wait to read more of this incredible work. Well done.

    Reply
    • Michael Pietrack

      Agreed! “Fun” is the precise word. I liked the zapping slapping bit the best.

      Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks, James. “The great mock-epic of modern times”—hmm, might have to use that as an endorsement at some point. Of course, have to finish it first, and who knows whether the rest of the world will ever agree with that view. Highly unlikely I’ll ever win a literary award for this thing. Unless maybe the SCP invents an award for book-length works!

      Reply
  2. Jeremiah Johnson

    Andrew, I love the introductory stanza! Reminds me somewhat of Billy Collins’ “Sonnet” – the good-humored irreverence that shows it knows whereof it speaks!

    Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks, Jeremiah. Often seems to be a good idea, when making fun of something admirable, to close by backsliding a bit and including oneself within the category. I must confess to being smitten with antiquity myself.

      Reply
  3. jd

    I enjoyed this poem very much and loved the 4th
    line the best. I can imagine many souls doing that. I really enjoyed reading the rest of it too. Quite the jolt to read this about a man so much admired. Loved the tongue in cheekiness of it.

    Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks, jd. I seem to recall medieval testimonies that talked about the departure of souls from the body. Also am reminded of a scientist in the who weighed people at the moment they died and concluded that the soul weighs 21 grams—a much ridiculed and debunked hypothesis, but makes interesting dinner conversation nevertheless.

      Reply
  4. Julian D. Woodruff

    A great combination of learning, resourcefulness, and sheer fun here, Mr Brown. Too many candidates for favorite lines and rhymes for me to pick.
    On “Ben peaked … “: is there a pun here that escapes me, or should it be “Ben peeked …”?

    Reply
    • ABB

      Ouch, thanks for catching that gaff, Julian. This is why it’s a good idea to post excerpts on the site before the thing appears in print form!

      Reply
  5. Michael Pietrack

    I read the whole thing with a smile. What a fun way to imagine history. Your sense of humor is gold, Brown, and Benjamin Benson Franklin would be electric over this!

    Reply
    • ABB

      Hmm, I feel like Benjamin Franklin should have had that middle name. I need to find some sort of legitimate link to a notable ancestor. Then make them a character.

      Reply
  6. James A. Tweedie

    The saga continues with the irrepressible, irredeemable and irresistible ABB milking American history for every daft and daffy drop he can squeeze out of it. This is history the way no dust-tongued tenured history prof has ever dared to teach lest he or she be greeted with guffaws, yuks and ha-ha-has. But with ABB at the helm, history will never again be associated with blah-blah-blahs or lah-di-dahs.

    As far as Ben’s experiment is concerned,

    Georg Wilhelm Richmann did the same
    But could not be revived.
    And Franklin, who received the fame,
    Was lucky he survived.

    And, by the way, scotch is something you drink. A person from Scotland is a Scot.

    Even so, a bravo well-earned.

    Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks for the appreciation, James, and for catching the Scot/Scotch error. It’s funny you mention Richmann, because when looking for images to put in the book I found an engraving of him getting electrocuted and appropriated it.

      Reply
  7. Margaret Coats

    Andrew, do you start with a bit of plot and let the words sizzle away with it? Or do you make a list of crazy words you want to use, and let the plot emerge as best it can? As everyone agrees, this is fun, but challenging to both history and literature. Or maybe we classify the Apotheosis of Franklin as mock religion. I agree with your proem stanza that this story seems more Greek than those in the earlier volume (which began in a very Vergilian manner). It is more contemporary as well, with several environmental touches. Recalling my earlier reading by candlelight because a storm knocked out the power for a week, I am delighted to read this using operational electricity. To make my proofreader contribution, I will suggest that the bucket brigade should arrive with brimming pails, not “pales” which are pointed wooden stakes such as used to build a picket fence unfriendly to intruders. Keep up the good humor!

    Reply
    • ABB

      Margaret, in response to your question, I do both. I have a general idea of where I want to go with the chapter but make specific details up as I go along. If I think of a funny word or a snatch of line I will jot it down for later. After reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Franklin, I decided the best course of action make a lot of stuff up but keep it true in spirit. Thanks for catching the ‘pales’ error…the mistakes are piling up here. Good to have a lot of eyes on this thing.

      Reply
  8. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    ABB, I love this poem – the rich, elevated language, the plethora of poetic devices, the vivid and vivacious use of imagery, and the wonder and wackiness of a story retold in your own unique style! What more could a reader who loves to walk on the wild side of literature want?

    Reply
    • ABB

      SJB, thank you. The long stanzas allow for a lot of development in terms of picture-making and effects, but do slow down the plot. So glad I could keep it entertaining.

      Reply
  9. C.B. Anderson

    You gotta like Ben Franklin. As much as anyone could be, he was the zeroth (i.e. the one before the first) American President. Your excerpt was electric.

    Reply
    • ABB

      As Adams complained the story would go, “Dr. Franklin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington.”
      Zeroth–gotta add this to the list.

      Reply
  10. Sally Cook

    Dear ABB –

    Just followed your method, and got this —

    You tumble along with old Ben,
    Electrify all of us, then
    Just before his damp shoes
    Turn into a fuse
    They dry , and you save him again.

    Ben Franklin is one we adore
    Because he had humor in store
    For high and for low
    Above and below
    Good taste, and was never a bore.

    Your work is always more than it should be, and you catch us unaware. Thanks !

    Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks for this witty ditty. Ben’s life could fill half a dozen biographies of lesser men, he combined so many extraordinary qualities. Makes it not hard to fictionalize him and the whole thing is ripe for comedy. But then, I see comedy everywhere!

      Reply
  11. Joseph S. Salemi

    Man, talk about an electrifying chunk of poetry! This crackles along like sparks from a live wire. I’ve wondered why Franklin wasn’t killed by that kite experiment (there’s a lot more juice in a lightning bolt than the puny zap a convict gets in the electric chair). But this turns the whole episode into a riot of wild comedy and fantasy. All those folks running around reminded me of a Keystone Cops short. I love the final note from Deborah about going shopping — what a concluding deflation (or short circuit, to keep with the subject).

    Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks, Dr. Salemi. It’s of course true that his kite wasn’t directly struck by lightning, which would have killed him. Instead he felt a charge from the accumulated electricity in the air when he touched the key with his knuckle, as shown in the Benjamin West painting. There are some skeptics out there who go further than this, denying that Franklin undertook the kite experiment at all and that he just made up the story. Which is absurd, because his son was there with him and also witnessed the event.

      Reply
  12. Stephen Dickey

    Andrew,
    I’m amazed at how you sustain the energy, here and in your first book. I must have been born without an epic node in my brain, I can’t imagine attempting something like this. Looking forward to volume 2.

    Reply
    • ABB

      Thanks, Stephen. Volume 2 coming along at a slower pace than expected, but making progress!

      Reply

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