Ethel Mortenson Davis’s drawing is the perfect artwork for the cover of the epic:
Ethel Mortenson Davis’s drawing is the perfect artwork for the cover of the epic:
by Thomas Davis
On January 1, 1975 I was working as a teacher at the Menominee County Community School when the Menominee Warrior Society took over the Alexian Brother’s Novitiate in Gresham, Wisconsin. Ethel and I were living in the Gresham trailer park at the time, and on January 2, a Monday, I drove into work as usual. I was a little nervous about taking my usual route down County Road VV since the news about the Novitiate was dominating local media and the old building was not far off my route, but I was pretty dedicated to the Community School and had no intention of missing work.
Sure enough, as I drove toward the Menominee County line, men in uniform, holding rifles in their hands, were blocking the road ahead of me. I remember a lot of snow on the ground, and it was cold. January in northern Wisconsin can be brutal. I drove up to where the men were standing, stopped, rolled down the window, and, after a conversation of several minutes, convinced them I was a teacher on my way to work. The men were tense and nervous and that was obvious in their questioning of me.
By that evening the Novitiate takeover dominated television and print news all over the world. However, other events were brewing in Shawano County where the Novitiate was located that would not make news until later. The Posse Comitatus, conspiracy minded, anti government, anti Semitic, white supremacist Christians, was beginning to stir and develop as an armed militia force, and even a cult with a mysterious origin was preparing to form a compound on land purchased not far from the old Menominee Reservation’s borders.
Four Windows Press has just released an epic poem that blends these, and other elements present in Shawano County from those momentous times, into an epic story. An American Spirit, an American Epic is a fictional poem. I worked hard to avoid portraying any real individual, even though I knew several of those who took over the Novitiate, in a story that rages with reality and magic, blending all the elements of Shawano County and the Novitiate takeover into a massive river of events told in traditional iambic pentameter meter. But there are powerful truths woven out of the heart of where we are at in American society today in the story.
The Editor of a small literary journal in Stevens Point, Wisconsin published two brief passages from the epic in Hepcat’s Revenge in April of 1995. Just before the passages appeared Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building, giving warning of what was about to become a significant thread in American life. In his commentary on the passages he published, the Editor said that An American Spirit was prophetic. He also commented that there were a lot of pages of strong poetry. Given events such as the deadly Charlottesville riots and President Trump’s racist attitude toward American Indians, it’s difficult to avoid the prescience of the Editor’s judgment.
I have not published the epic before now partially because I was reluctant to self-publish it and partially because I have always wondered if it would be more controversial as a work of art than I wished to face. There are so many questions about it in my head. This is the only R rated work of literature I have ever written. The Posse Comitatus still exists under another name, and the epic does not treat them well, as is appropriate, and I used a lot of American Indian content derived from books noted in the footnotes. Should a non-Indian author do that? I have worked for the Indian controlled schools and tribal colleges and universities movements most of my life. The wisdom of American Indian culture is deep and wonderful, but it is their culture and belongs only to each tribe’s unique ethos.
The truth is that even though the epic is available through amazon.com, I do not intend to market it aggressively like I do my other books. I believe it explores the American spirit in a way that it should be explored. American society is not a melting pot where races, ethnicities, and political identities are blended into a single whole. Rather, it is a complex explosion of identities played out inside the great pageant of history that is always becoming an uncertain future. Conflict and resolution stir in surprising and unexpected ways, giving Americans an identity that is never static, but spins its forces in ways threatening the continuance of the natural world and even human beings who depend upon that world for existence.
The magic elements of the epic are derived from two main sources, although other sources can be found in the body of the poem. Many of the magical allusions are drawn from the Old or New Testament of the Holy Bible. American society for a large part of its history up until the current day has been a culture imbued with the Christian religion. However, in counterpoint to Christianity, the also epic explores the power of the feminine and fertility based upon the tenants of the White Goddess of Celtic lore and other ancient symbols of female power. The conflict between the father dominance and the fall out of the Garden of Eden and the powers of Mother Earth has long seemed to me to be a ferment helping to define current day American society.
Even though, I admit, I am hesitant to invite comments from those who read An American Spirit, An American Epic, I hope those who are willing to delve into its pages feel free to tell me what they think. This is one of the major works, written a long time ago, of my life. I need to steel myself for whatever reception it does, or does not, receive.
an epic poem by Thomas Davis
Ruanne packed carefully, then heaved a sigh.
The hunters would not willingly allow
Her presence as they braved the treachery
Of miles of snow now frozen on its surface.
They’d think she’d be a burden as they watched
For warring dragons and the wounded men,
But she was going if she had to travel
Behind them as they tried to find Ruarther
And Cragdon struggling back to where the village,
Tense, fearful, waited for a dreaded future.
She loved Ruarther even as he caused
The chaos threatening all that she loved.
Outside her cottage Reestor waited, looking
Exhausted, circles black beneath his eyes.
He shook his head to see the pack she’d packed.
“I knew you’d try to go,” he said. “A-Brimm
Will try to stop you, but he’ll not succeed.”
Ruanne smiled at the village leader, shook
Her head, but silently walked past to where
The hunters gathered as the morning sun
Threw blue, long shadows out from trees
Whose branches bent beneath their loads of snow.
A-Brimm looked carefully at her and Reestor
The moment that they left her cottage door.
She did not look at him, but looked toward
The trail they’d travel as they made their way
Into the slopes and fields that rose snow-bound
Into the mountains where the dragons lived.
When Reestor opened up the wooden gate
The grim-faced hunter shook his head and frowned.
“This trip is not a woman’s trip,” he said.
“I’ll not be blamed for leading you to harm.”
Ruanne glanced at his glare, then walked on past
And started down the trail toward the fields
Beyond the denseness of the forest’s trees.
A-Brimm turned, desperate, to Reestor, pointed
Toward Ruanne, frustration in the way he stood.
“You’re leader. Make her stop,” he said. “Who knows
What nightmares that we’ll face outside of here.”
“Ruarther’s hurt and dying,” Reestor said.
“We need her here if we can stop this war
Before it overwhelms us all, but I
Can’t stop her, so you’ll have to keep her safe.”
The seven other hunters mumbled, growled
To hear the village leader’s words. A-Brimm
Just stared at him, then grabbed his bow and pack
From snow and stalked to where Ruanne had walked.
The other hunters, voices cursing, scrambled
Into the trail Ruanne and he had left.
Blind, stumbling, Cragdon felt his death
Beside him in the snow he’d walked for days.
His body jarred each time he forced his muscles
Into another step, another mile,
His eyesight blurring in the winter sunlight.
He’d lost the reason why he kept his legs
Alive with shuffling downhill toward
The endlessness of emptiness. His thoughts
Were haunted by the vision of a dragon
That flamed out from the fullness of a moon
With searing tongues of fire that made his flesh
Smell charred and sweet with putrefaction’s rot.
He kept on swatting at the empty air
And flinching as the flames shot out at him.
He thought he’d welcome death when movement
Became too difficult, and life gave out.
He thought he’d smile and take death’s hand in his
And feel relief that he, at last, was done.
He could not bring his wife or child alive
Inside his mind. It troubled him, but still. . .
Ruanne walked from the woods into the fields
And squinted at the brightness of the snow.
A-Brimm, ten steps behind, stopped when she stopped.
Behind them hunters started leaving woods.
Ruanne then saw the figure stumbling
Toward them out of light, his head hung down.
Her heart inside her throat, she saw that Cragdon,
A man near death, was struggling alone.
Ruarther was not anywhere in sight,
And then she smelled a bear’s rank smell and felt
It rising up inside the forest, light
Cold-deep in red eyes burning hate and rage.
She saw it rise up from a fire’s dark ash
And hunch above Ruarther’s sleeping body
Burned raw by dragon flame and coal-black rage,
Its roiling spirit flowing like a stream
Into the rage that made him who he was.
The vision made her stagger, sending blackness,
A thin, sharp, liquid arrow at her brain.
She heard A-Brimm shout when he saw the man.
She watched as Cragdon stopped his movement, tried
To understand if he was hearing things,
And lifted up his head into the air.
She turned toward the village, away from Cragdon,
As all the hunters ran toward the man.
She could not see. The great bear smiled at her
And laughed its weirding as she fled its madness,
Ruarther’s madness, wondering how she
Could keep him safe from who he was inside,
A man who thought that he could kill a child
And bring a peace he’d purposely destroyed.
I should have known, she thought. Ruather’s strength
Was great enough to live through dragon’s fire.
Salvation layed in her and not in him.
To listen to this section of the epic, click Reordering Salvation
Note: This is the twenty second installment of a long narrative poem, which has grown into an epic. Inspired by John Keats’ long narrative poem, Lamia, it tells a story set in ancient times when dragons and humans were at peace. Click on the numbers below to reach other sections, or go to the Categories box to the right under The Dragon Epic. Click on 1 to go to the beginning and read forward. Go to 21 to read the installment before this one. Click on 23 to read the next installment and continue the journey.