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.