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.
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?”
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.
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.