Poem: An Exile’s Bicentennial
Sermon I: An Exile's Bicentennial
Oxford, Ohio, August, 1976
Hot nights in Summer when the calendar
gets stuck on August, I, numbed by the lull
of the air-conditioner, lie listening
to trucks roll by on 27; their headlights
scrambling over the walls breed from their shadows
the nameless Furies of my discontent.
They gasp through first as up through second for air
through sometimes seven gears till up the hill
now, and they're out of town--quiet till another
truck comes from the South, Atlanta, Birmingham--
their factories the brooding sentinels
of Yankee occupation; up through Kentucky
they'd crossed the Ohio about an hour ago,
through Indiana to Chicago, where Dawn
squanders her passion on Lake Michigan
raising the rents along the magnificent mile.
Or from the East, Columbus, Wheeling, Pittsburgh,
threading this morning the West Virginia Turnpike,
stalled desperately on grades behind a line
of unembarrassed campers in Winnebagoes
who slow to watch the mountainside split open
and West Virginia disembowelled slide spoiling
into sullen creeks and vallies now ungreen.
They might have started from the Carolinas--
dead Fords rusting into tobacco fields--
up 17 along the coast, where signs
mark a plantation burnt down to a chimney
in the swamps, where a garden's geometric plan
magnolias helter-skelter trace; fom Charleston
or Savannah, ruined citadels of peace.
Now rocking past the pigfarms of Ohio
and cornfields luscious in the pigs' manure,
they pursue like history their vision of
the golden West. Upon this continent--
this bed--my nerves spin out the muddled networks
of your routes, marking with elbows fingers knees
the railroad towns and strangeld cities where
one part of life lit up or went out smoking--
America is here inside Ohio
in this dust-haunted room, inside the ferment
of gastric juice blood bile a civil war
of half-digested Kansas beef and Florida
oranges, a garbage can of fifty states
to celebrate their Bicentennial.
This was the first of a number of "sermons," a play on Horace's term (sermones) for his satires plus an implied rebuke to the poet's tendency to preach.