Oct. 19, 2005

Of Presidents & Emperors

by David Ray

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Poem: "Of Presidents & Emperors" by David Ray from The Death of Sardanapalus and Other Poems of The Iraq Wars. © Howling Dog Press. Reprinted with permission.

Of Presidents & Emperors

Comparing our imperial leader today to Nero,
whose troops were also engaged in occupation
of Parthian lands along the Euphrates, with about
the same luck as today, we surely must temper
our judgments, forgive a few lies and lives lost,
give thanks that most of the deaths are uncounted,
and not ours. After all, our leader did not murder
his mother. He and she are on excellent terms.

Nero murdered his wife Octavia, also Poppaea,
his second, by kicking her while she was pregnant
with his child, guaranteed divinity. In Washington
you see no such abominations. The lies are genteel
and murder is at the far end of Pathfinders,
Tomahawks, gun ships and Patriot missiles.
Back home we can thank our stars that tribunes
and freed gladiators do not arrive bearing swords
and platters for heads. And because Congress
consists of the deferential they would never be at risk.
Our leader needs not assassinate sassy senators.

He would never set fire to Washington or build
an ostentatious mansion like Nero's over the ruins.
As a God-fearing Christian he would never thank
Jupiter for throwing javelins of fire at his enemies,
nor would he go on tour to read his poems or play
his harp in the provinces. Yet for his speeches
our President gets as much applause as Nero,
whose soldiers prodded those who nodded off.

In the Oval Office no visitor is obliged to fall upon
knees and weary the President's hand with kisses.
Yet the fear Tacitus expressed could be voiced today.
He worried that such "a monotony of disasters"
as those ordered by Nero might, if recited, disgust all
who heard them. He preferred not to sicken his readers
lest they be "fatigued of mind and paralyzed with grief."
In Rome thousands like us could only pray for relief.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the anniversary of the surrender that ended the American Revolutionary War, in Yorktown, Virginia (1781). In the spring of 1781, George Washington had been on his last legs and had only a few thousand troops camped at West Point. He had been planning to attack New York City, which was held by the British, and the British had been expecting him to do that too.

But when he learned that the British, under Lord Cornwallis, were building a naval base on the Yorktown Peninsula in Virginia, he decided to march his army all the way from New York to Virginia, in hopes of trapping Cornwallis and capturing his army. His army marched four hundred miles first veering toward New York City to scare the British into hunkering down, and then south.

Cornwallis knew that Washington was coming, but he chose not to flee. He thought he'd be evacuated by the British Navy. He didn't realize that the British Navy had been routed by a French fleet from the south. So in early October, Washington's troops surrounded Yorktown and began a siege. And on this day in 1781 at 2:00 in the morning the surrender began.

The one soldier who did not surrender was Cornwallis himself. Instead, he sent his sword out to be given to the French general who was there, which infuriated George Washington. But England did not have enough money to raise another army. They appealed for peace. Two years later the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the war was over.

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