"When you say the word coal, you do not think of poetry." These are the first words in Denise Giardina's preface to Coal: A Poetry Anthology. She's right. The word conjures up instead dark holes, white eyes shining out of blackened faces, strikes, hardship, and big corporate interests. At least, those are the things that come to my mind.
But here the coal sings in words that define a place, a culture, a people, and an industry that is both loved and hated. Listen to the last verse of Kentucky poet James Still's poem, "Earth-Bread":
This is the eight-hour death, the daily burial
In a dark harvest lost as any dead.
He describes in few words the lifetimes of the many men who went into the mines, and the dark fear that hung over them.
Many of the poems are memorials to men lost in the mines; others celebrate them as a group not unlike warriors, who each day enter into battle under the mountains. Others tell the terrbile tales of disasters, like Monongah, WV, the terrible explosion that took over 360 lives on December 6, 1907. This excerpt is from the poem "Monogah" by David Salner:
There's a meadow, filled with threadbare gray
of five hundred women in the snow. They sob
to the heavens, as gaunt as the heavens are
in West Virginia. I ask them to leave,
for we're in danger from another explosion,
but the women won't go.
There's Farmington No. 9, by Lloyd Davis, the terrible disaster that left 19 men entombed beneath the ground. I visited this site a few years ago and will not forget the eerie feeling of realizing we were standing right above their burial place.
The most recent mining disaster in West Virginia, Sago, is also memorialized in the book with a poem by Beth Wellington, told in the words of one of the miner's wives.
I was especially pleased to find a poem by Max Price, a member of our local writing group, included: His "Mountain Travesty" decries the practice of mountaintop removal. Many of the poets are names that students of Appalachian literature will recognize; others may be unfamiliar, but their words ring strong and true.
With chapters titled Miners and Work, Disasters and Mining, Families and Community, Life After the Mines, Environmental Degradation, and Resistance, the book covers many aspects of life in the coalfields. A bibliography and author notes are included for those who want to read more.
Coal: A Poetry Anthology is a compelling, moving collection, one that should be on the shelves of every Appalachian library or home.
Editor: Chris Green
Publisher: Blair Mountain Press, 2027 Oakview Rd, Ashland, KY 41101
telephone 606-324-2266 or email the Press at firstname.lastname@example.org