When the Sago mine explosion trapped 13 West Virginia miners 250 feet below ground in January, I was deep into Kettle Bottom, a stunning collection of poetry by Diane Gilliam Fisher that is inspired by the mine wars of 1920-21. The coincidence was sobering and horrifying.
The world prayed for rescue and watched the families go through the surreal roller coaster of first being told that the miners were alive, and later that all but one had died. The Sago mine was a small, nonunion mine whose 208 safety violations in 2005 alone included roof falls, power-wire failures, and inadequate ventilation plans. The flurry of investigations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration may result in stronger safety standards and more vigilant enforcement. But Kettle Bottom hits us with this reality: The essentials of coal mining have not changed in 85 years. The companies resist organizing in favor of profits, the mountain takes the men, and the women raise what’s left.
Fisher knows this terrain. Her family was part of the out-migration of Mingo County, West Virginia, site of the violent mine wars that marked some of the first union organizing. Fisher sketches out that tumultuous history at the beginning of her collection, and then plunges us into a poetic narrative of the people of Mingo County. Each of the 50 poems is in the voice of county folk. White, black, and Italian miners speak. Their children and wives speak. The owners, the preacher, and the teacher brought to the company school all have their say. Many of the poems are based on real lives and incidents.
The danger of the trade—mine collapses, carbon monoxide poisoning (“damp air”), fire, explosions, black lung—pervades the book. Mining is a way to make a living (if you call these scarce wages a living) in a region that offers few choices, but it can also be accompanied by a kind of fierce love for the work. As one sister writes the other: “Drinking ain’t the only thing, Hazel. /Some men, they get in the mine, and it gets them. /They won’t do nothing else, nor care.”
NORMALLY, I READ through a poetry collection a few poems at a time, but Kettle Bottom was impossible to put down. The strong cadences in the poems mirrored those in the TV footage I was watching. Which is to say that Fisher accomplishes the very difficult task of making the voices and perspectives in her poems authentic. She records an oral culture on the page, sacrificing nothing in metaphor, complexity, or strong, persistent punches of reality.
The Bible folds into these poems as solidly as the mountains themselves, but deep-seated religiosity never succumbs to superficial piety. It seems as authentic to the place as the voices themselves. These people don’t confuse God’s will with the economic structures that steal their youngest and best. They take God on—invoking Job, angels that roll away stones, stories of fiery furnaces and liberating Samsons. “Let us step forth /with our wives and our children and say, /We are that food, when the Almighty God /demands of the operators of Stone Mountain Coal /Who provideth for the raven his food?”
Twenty thousand men died in mine accidents during the 1920s. Those numbers have decreased dramatically, but as the Sago mine disaster and Kettle Bottom remind us, risk is always with mining families. “It is true that it is the men that goes in, but it is us /that carries the mine inside. It is us that listens /to all they are scared of and takes /the weight off them, like handing off /a sack of meal,” says the opening poem. That truth will remain long after Sago has passed from our country’s short-term memory.
Dee Dee Risher is a writer and editor in Philadelphia.