Franklin Gillette

The Course of Empire

Based on the paintings of Thomas Cole in the New York Historical Society

 

I. SAVAGE STATE

 

The metropolis builds giant oaks

hovering over commuting streams of ants.

Owls, hawks and eagles glide like planes

delivering express cargo of field mice

and besieged rabbits to penthouse holes.

 

No maps exist except for inborn instincts.

There are no suburbs, city or county lines,

yet property rights are closely marked by scent.

Rain and wind—the only tax collectors

balance as does the census never taken.

 

II. PASTORAL STATE

 

Clothing ourselves we forget ourselves —

our shapes confuse in bags of drapery.

Even campfire smoke has docile harmony.

The clouds have settled.  The Shepard with his stick

walks flocks back plushy planted lawns.

 

All spring and fall they labor on the farm

hoping weather will not wreak their work.

Eden, where, they didn’t have to work,

is lost, its fruit of knowledge only taught

them to think their own nakedness.

 

III. CONSUMMATION OF EMPIRE

 

Here art replaces nature, policy

replaces instinct or intuition,

marble pillars replace trunks of trees,

rocks are cut to roads replacing fields,

and human beings become domesticated slaves.

 

On other species one species imposes,

and a small circle dominates that species

while rulers worship statues of the gods

or on silk, reclining in their palaces,

bored from building, pass time counting coins.

 

IV. DESTRUCTION

 

Pushed by hunger, ambition and revenge

invaders eye a populous draped in silk,

seeking weakness they find decadence,

cowardly leaders, whimsical gaggling mobs

only vigilant on topics tickling the brain.

 

The beautiful city waits too long… bewildered

the headless marble hero charges his sword…

escape boats burn… sink…. bridges collapse;

witnesses of the attack alert the outskirts

which chuckle: “how could our empire fall?”

 

V. DESOLATION

 

They die.  Only the shattered pieces remain

to sink into the earth.  Thousands of years

go by.  A farmer’s or sheepherder’s child

with his friend, or amateur explorers,

or drillers find a broken piece of bronze.

 

Archeologists flying to the site

dig deeper finding the pattern of the streets

which we follow on the TV News,

the ancient capitol once thought a myth

ships to museums in our current empire.

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Franklin Gillette won the Starr Symposium Poetry Contest and his work has appeared in Poetry East, Light Quarterly and many other magazines. He is also an opera librettist, a painter and a spiritual teacher.

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