Braddock’s redcoats march across the lawn,
Eating escapees that the flankers hinder;
From worms and seeds, the infantry moves on,
And flies to the south, outmaneuvering winter.
A phantom corps has gathered in the groundswell —
Must and muster, musketry and musk —
Each man’s a molt, each warrior a husk,
Exuviae: last refuge of a scoundrel.
Those who crawl and burrow in the ground dwell
Under the grass where fife and drum drill,
And raise in the heat their skirling roundel
That rolls through the trees with the clatter of a tumbrel.
This year of non-centennial’s an anniversary:
On myrtle branches that cicadas splintered
Above the ground where years they overwintered,
Some crape scraps still festoon adversity.
NOTES for Students of English
“Braddock’s redcoats” – A reference to British General Edward Braddock (1675-1755) who led a North American campaign (with young aide-de-camp George Washington) during the French and Indian War (1754-1763). British troops were called “redcoats” from the color of their uniforms.
Must – 1) The juice of grapes or other fruit before and during fermentation; also the pulp and skins of the crushed grapes; 2) mustiness, mold; 3) musk.
Exuviae – (Pronounced ig-ZU-vee-ee) From Latin exuere “to remove, take off”; the shed skin or exoskeleton of an insect, snake, lobster etc. In antiquity, exuviae meant discarded clothes, stripped animal hides, and the spoils of war such as captured weapons and booty; exuviae also referred to accoutrements of the gods paraded in special carts during festival processions.
In the field of entomology, the English word is undergoing metamorphosis. Formerly the plural exuviae was the only correct form. Then the back-formed singular exuvia came into use to refer to the shed skin of a single individual. Subsequently by analogy with other Latin-derived plurals in English that end in “a” – such as media from medium, millennia from millennium, and addenda from addendum – a new singular form exuvium was created on the mistaken assumption that exuvia was plural. All three forms — exuviae, exuvia, and exuvium — now coexist in popular scientific literature.
“Last refuge of a scoundrel” – A play on the famous phrase, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” pronounced by English lexicographer Samuel Johnson in 1775.
Fife and drum – A small transverse flute accompanying drums in a marching band; “fife and drum” is a frequently encountered phrase and image from the era of the American Revolution (1775-1781).
Skirl – To make the sound of a bagpipe. Highland bagpipes were played by Scottish recruits in British troops during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. The pipes’ penetrating sound could be heard over the noise of the battlefield.
Roundel – A form of verse with repeating lines.
Tumbrel – A two-wheeled wooden cart carrying condemned persons to the guillotine during the French Revolution (1789-1799).
“Year of non-centennial” – North American periodical cicadas, Magicicada species, emerge from underground every 13 or 17 years for a few weeks to climb trees, mate, lay eggs, and die. The hatchlings fall to the ground and burrow in to restart the lifecycle.
Myrtle – Crape myrtle, a type of decorative small tree, Lagerstroemia indica.
“Branches that cicadas splintered” – Cicadas lay their eggs in slits that they make in the bark of tree branches. Sometimes the slit will be deep enough to kill the end of a twig.
Overwintered – The American revolutionary army under General George Washington endured a famous arduous winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (1777-1778). American periodical cicadas pass not just winters but whole years underground feeding on root sap.
Crape – A play on the word’s two meanings: 1) crape myrtle blossoms; and 2) crape paper bunting — also spelled crepe — traditionally used for outdoor decorations on patriotic holidays.