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.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

3 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    “unembarrassed campers in Winnebagoes” This made me laugh.

  2. Vince Cornell says:

    Yes – the Winnebagoes line got me, too!

  3. Dot says:

    Yep! The Yankees are occupying the South again and changing the color from red to blue.