Written by Diane Gilliam Fisher
Published by Perugia Press, Florence, MA
Review by Carole Mertz
In her chapbook of fifty weighty poems, most of which are prose poems, Diane Gilliam Fisher gives us the bleak history of coal miners’ lives and travails during the period of the West Virginian miners’ wars of 1920-21.
Most commendable in this collection is the ring of authenticity in the poet’s voice and the way she has captured the slang and often grammatically ill-constructed sentences of the coal-mining poor, voices which carry a poetry of their own. None of the lines are rhymed, and Fisher employs few poetical devices, but her eloquent tone is present throughout.
In “Ironing,” we read:
I does it. All the rest, too, I ain’t white—
scrub the clothes when they dirty,
feed the children when they hungry, comb
the cinders out of they heads when the train
blast by, spewing like a devil out of the hind end
A miner speaks in “The Rocks Down Here”: First hour of every shift down in the mine, / shakes and cold sweats worse’n the grippe / that near took me last spring. / Past that, I begin to feel easy-like, / moving through the dark.
In poem after poem, Fisher, who, perhaps ironically, holds an advanced degree in Romance Languages and Literature, captures precisely the sparse language and poetry of the miners, their wives, and children. A young girl speaks in the poem, “Pearlie Asks Her Mama What Poontang Means .”
Mama says to don’t tell Daddy, for he
would have to go after them men that spoke
to me that way, and God only knows
what would happen then…
them men has put murder in my heart.
Looking back, we can appreciate the astounding contributions these struggling, overworked, undervalued and blackened miners handed to our country. They carved out of the earth the energy source the U.S. needed to continue its industrial sprouting and feed its steamships and steam-operated rail lines; they delivered this energy, almost mutely, out of the sweat of their coal-darkened bodies, with little reward for themselves.
A sixth grader reports in the poem “What History Means to Me:”
“…before we was West Virginia and was only the Endless / Mountains of Virginia. [Aunt Mandy] has put it to me like this. First / the railroads come and lots of fancy pants forriners trying / to buy up ever little creek and holler and home place they set / their thieving eyes on. Then the timber men come, took the / oak and yellow poplar, wrecked the rivers and left. Collieries / come and stayed, but the coal and the money went. What it / means to us is a lot of dead husbands and caved-in bellies…”
Each poem in this collection moved me. But the composite created an impression not soon forgotten. In “1920, Winco Coal Camp,” we witness a three-fold loss.
My third-eldest brother, Robert Warren, went in
the mine at sixteen. We’d buried Daddy three days before,
right next to Alma, for even though Daddy had sold
mineral rights to Stone Mountain Coal, he would not
sign till they wrote in the paper how we’d always
have use of the burying ground. The Company
told Mama it was a kettle bottom took Daddy. They say
that a lot—kettle bottom, they figure, ain’t nobody’s fault.
They give Robert Warren Daddy’s tools, and his number,
- Put him to work in the same room. Roof
sounded hollow, Robert Warren said, but he couldn’t see
where no kettle bottom had fell through. He had twelve
days in the hole when his section caved. Company says
couldn’t nobody have lived, says they can’t go in
for the bodies without risking more men…
Fisher organizes her poems carefully. They lead us to the miners’ breaking point. In reaction to the “gun thugs,” as the miners called the agents sent to enforce company policy and spy out any union activity, violence erupted and became the Matewan Massacre of May, 1920. Men on both sides of the struggle were killed.
The miners eventually contributed to unionized power, after the severe test of the Battle of Blair Mountain. In that confrontation, the men ultimately chose not to fight against uniformed government soldiers with whom, side-by-side and wearing the same uniform, they’d so recently fought in the First World War. (The United Mine Workers of America, begun in 1890 in Columbus, Ohio, did not achieve collective bargaining rights for its workers, however, until 1933, nor health benefits until 1946.)
In “One Voice,” the poet draws on a pastor’s sermon, to strong effect:
Did not John the Baptist
say unto the people, Let him who hath two coats
impart unto him that hath none? Any operators
stop you on your way to church this morning
and impart? Any of you leave a child
at home, on account of it wasn’t their turn
with the coat?
“Raven Light,” one of the most powerful poems in the collection, also uses a Biblical excerpt. A miner reflects, “When I was a boy, I liked the story of Jonah. / He done right, I thought. If God / meant to send him to a evil place, / why shouldn’t he get on a boat / and head the other way? I bet Nineveh / was run by folks like Stone Mountain Coal…”
A schoolgirl tries not to defy in “A Book Report, by Pearlie Webb”:
“First off, I do not understand what a book report is for . It
seems to me books is to read , and it is the author’s job to
write . Second off, I do not believe being extra smart, as you
said I am and that is why I have to write this book report,
should mean a person has got to do extra work. But I was
not raised in a barn, my mama has taught me do not sass,
so I will write my book report as I am told.”
A lively oral history of the life of miners exists and is carried through time by the spoken word and song. Fisher’s sad, but beautiful, poems deserve to be read aloud and thereby contribute to that precious oral tradition. As a history, Kettle Bottom is commendable; as a book of poetry, it deserves to be treasured in its own right.
Carole Mertz has reviews and essays in Arc Poetry Magazine, Ascent Aspirations, Copperfield Review, The Conium Review, Capper’s, Mom Egg Review, Tiny Lights Journal, Working Writer, and World Literature Today. Her poems appeared in Every Day Poems, Page & Spine, Rockford Review, WestWard Quarterly, and in various anthologies. Her poem won the June 2015 Wilda Morris Poetry Challenge. Carole trusts the power of the pen to influence, in large ways or small, the direction our country takes today. She writes in Parma, Ohio.