Donald Trump, God and Guns in Appalachia: Poem

Image of Donald Trump sign in Appalachia

Flood Carries Burning House

Whose spirit is this?  we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”

The headline says that the story and pictures, a video, were
some editor’s wet dream: not only does a fire floridly trump
everything, there’s an effing flood in one of the dirt-poor places
that believe in a God and guns because, well, what else is there?
My genes are these places. And not in any all-in-your-mind way.
My parents and my grandparents are Appalachian—Kentuckians—
and helped settle the same coal town where Want is a cry sustained.
Sure, I swell with pride when I think of them. But then that passes.

Where is the good in an emblazoned house doing a busted figure-eight
on what you would’ve called a banal creek yesterday and the day before?
Wanting to think of time just after suffering as the source of feelings you
wish wouldn’t pass quickly—is that something we can imprint and pass on?
Maybe it’s chemical, wanting a whole lot of love and sunshine to befall us.
Maybe the vagaries of a life cause recombinations at the level of the DNA
so that what happens next, or doesn’t, alters the gene. And if a whole lot
of such alterations define us as “body wholly body,” to quote Stevens,

then I wish this sort of change a medicine that works in my body,
if not in theirs, to still the voices of the traumatized-for-generations.
On the video, we see the house engulfed. Floodwater is having at
what fire isn’t making short work of, absolutely black smoke
an indicator of nothing. Next time I’m born to people like these,
I’ll complicate things. A hillbilly will challenge Authority. Hill folk
are nothing if not there-is-good-in-there-somewhere types, each
swept along—thank you, Jesus!—by the will-of-God deluge.

for Stevie and Jack

Roy Bentley About Roy Bentley

Roy Bentley is the author of Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama Press), Any One Man (Bottom Dog Books), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press). A new book, Walking with Eve in the Loved City, has been selected by Billy Collins as a finalist for the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and will be publlshed in the spring of 2018 by the University of Arkansas Press. Work from that collection has appeared in Shenandoah, Pleiades, Rattle, Blackbird, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.


  1. Geometry of this poem – the fire burns the house up, the flood washes it away, a flood just the wrong solution to a fire.Two elements, working at cross purposes, achieve destruction. About how we deal with crises. Cool.

  2. Loved this poem…
    For the home-dwellers, the fire should have warmed their hearth, the ‘crick’ should have quenched their thirst. It does not ‘signify nothing’ – it signifies the owners’ disrespect of the elements.

    Respect: Don’t kick out the embers in the fireplace. Paint to prevent rot in the structure and foundation. If you don’t keep your house, do all those tedious seemingly meaningless tasks, then why would your house not fall?

    This is a brilliant poem but how sorry can one feel for the homeowners if they can’t take responsibility and care for what they are lucky to have – gifts of home, fire and water? The house in the picture is not palatial, but it required skill to build, has glass windows, a roof, and a porch. People built it. Everything and everyone in life is a gift – treat all with tenderness and mercy, lest they misunderstand, over-react to their own shame. Prometheus learned that the hard way, got burned. If this is not the poet’s message, then it should be (in my humble opinion).

    Who is going to “make America great again” if it doesn’t start at home with taking individual responsibility? Are the owners just waiting for someone to save them? Even Jesus can’t save everyone, but then that is because maybe some just don’t listen. But then maybe the flood, she took them where they all needed to be?

    – from an Appalachian little sister

  3. Why does this poem remind me of Huck Finn in “Life on the Mississippi”? At one point Huck Finn and Jim enter a house that is floating down the flooded river. At the time it is all a lark to Huck, and it is only later that Huck learns that the dead man in the house was really Huck Finn’s coot of a father, info that Jim delivers only at the very end of their long journey.

    It is at the end that the reader realizes that the only adult on the whole trip has been Jim, who has been looking after Huck the whole while, not the other way around. That and when Jim consents to dress up like a woman – that feeling of trying to entertain the kids at any cost to keep them out of real trouble.

    The conspiracy of adults – try to keep the young ones safe.

    Bentley’s poem says: “wanting a whole lot of love and sunshine to befall” – who doesn’t think that about life? It is having the guts to work things out – respond to emergency with compassion and wit, especially toward the young, like old underappreciated Jim.

    In the end, even goofy Huck Finn realizes that running away was not the answer after all. Surely Huck wonders what he himself would have done if he realized it was his father in the house – family. But, in an effort to protect him, Jim took away Huck’s right to mourn and make peace with his father and, in that, the genes of his family.

    Bentley’s house is not described as occupied – the newscast never gets to the exclusive story and somehow I cannot believe there is no cast of characters waiting to be heard. In my mind, feels like there could have been a child, naively playing with matches, who lights the conflagration. The adults go ballistic and cannot deal with the flood too. Just an impression. I want to hear more – especially from poet Bentley.

    • Roy Bentley says:

      Thank you for the comment–I’d make only one correction: Huck Finn isn’t in Life on the Mississippi.


      • I stand corrected. The book is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” but the ambiance is a life on the Mississippi, if I can be allowed that.

        Also, I will note that one should always seek adventure. I am all in favor of adventure!

        • Got this one on one of my phone apps that delivers a “Quote of the Day” – seemed apt:

          “There is no security, only opportunity.” Douglas MacArthur, U.S. five-star general.

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