For the W. Va. and Turkish Miners: Journal of Catherine Terry, 30 Nov. 1920

Diane Gilliam Fisher is a true poet of miners, their communities, their culture and families. Her poetic vision in “Kettle Bottom,” her most recent collection from Perugia Press, stands out for its stark images of mining life, as well as the tender mercies bestowed on its working people, the unique beauties, terrors and tragedies that shadow and light their lives and their communities. You feel, like weight of the Earth beneath you, the unique contribution miners have made, and continue to make, to both national and international culture. The poem below, “Journal of Catherine Terry, 30 November 1920,” copyright © 2004 by Diane Gilliam Fisher, is reprinted from “Kettle Bottom” with the permission of Perugia Press, Florence, Mass.

As a memorial for the two West Virginia miners and hundreds of Turkish miners who lost their lives this past week, it says more than 100 articles. We originally posted this in 2010 as a tribute to 25 miners who were killed at the Massey Energy mine in Montcoal, W.Va. It’s a sad, ongoing story of corporate negligence and greed.
– John Case

 Journal of Catherine Terry, 30 November 1920

The trump of the Last Day

could scarce cast such terror
as the siren. It blew
and the world froze. Children
making their way up the hill to the schoolhouse
suddenly stopped, staring at each other
in some nightmare version of their game
of statues. A woman sweeping her porch,
paralyzed, broom mid-thrash.
Another, arms half-lifted in her reach
to a clothesline, face whipped back
toward the siren’s wail.
It lasted only a second, this Pompeii,
the terrible tableau vivant, 
then everything fell to the ground, clattered
terrible – lunch pails, washtubs, buckets,
brooms – and the world began to pour,
as in a vortex, toward the drift mouth.
It breathed not smoke, but dust – a roof fall,
the mouth of the mountain clamped shut,
eating its children. The siren, merciless.
Merciless the men who got out
fighting rock to get back in.
The eyes of the women, merciless, watching
that mouth for what it would give back
or keep. Don’t look, I thought,
for I had never seen a man die –
and wasn’t Eurydice lost
on account of just such looking
down toward the underworld? But
their gaze was the only spell they had
to conjure faces out of that dark; it was a net
flung out between a black sky and a black sea
drawn back empty and flung again.
There was nothing else to do:
like Orpheus, I looked.

Photo: A 1912 postcard showing miners’ wives and children heading home after picking coal out of refuse heaps for use at home. Original photo is by William J. Harris. / CC BY-SA 2.0