"DARK COME EARLIER EVERY
DAY": DIANE GILLIAM
FISHER'S KETTLE BOTTOM
Fisher mines this dark chapter in
American labor history,
delving into the human condition by way
inhumane conditions. Her pillars are the tools
of her craft:
authentic voices, well-researched
vernacular, and moving, verisimilar
details of daily life . . . .
Pillars, we learn in Diane
Gilliam Fisher's Kettle Bottom,
are temporary load-bearing walls of coal in the "rooms" of mines.
Their removal presents a particular hazard, as one speaker tells us:
come back in when the rooms is all mined
and pull them
down, we don’t leave nothing
knowed three men’s died that way,
nothing left of
them but their names—
roof don’t hold
too long without no walls.
Through a collage of characters
(think Edgar Lee Masters meets Walker Evans), Kettle Bottom explores the West
Virginia mine wars of 1920-21. Fisher mines this dark chapter in
American labor history, delving into the human condition by way of
inhumane conditions. Her pillars are the tools of her craft:
authentic voices, well-researched vernacular, and moving, verisimilar
details of daily life in a place where “dark come earlier every day”
American popular culture has a certain
fascination with coal mining. The pre-disco Bee Gees had a hit with
“New York Mining Disaster 1941;” post-“Carrie” Sissy Spacek earned an
for Coal Miner’s Daughter;
and the Pennsylvania miners trapped for three days in 2002 were barely
out of the shaft before they faced pitches from film producers
competing to script their saga. Perhaps our interest is primal, based
on the universal fear of being buried alive, à la Poe. Or maybe
coal mining is wrapped up in our collective guilt about having others
do our dirty work for us. Whatever the reason, there will be, I’m
certain, a visceral interest in the content of Fisher’s book.
At a certain point in a collection like this,
however, creativity must take over where content leaves off. I’m happy
to say that in this department, Fisher strikes gold. There’s the widow
who identifies her husband’s body from the calico patch she sewed on
I didn’t have
nothing to patch
with but my old blue dress,
and Ted didn’t
want floweredy goods
on his shirt. I
told him, It’s just under your arm,
Ted, it ain’t
going to show.
They brung out the bodies,
tell. I seen a piece of my old blue dress
on one of them
bodies, blacked with smoke,
but I could tell
it was my patch, up under the arm.
[“Explosion at Winco No. 9”]
There’s the worker who feels forced to break the strike:
don’t do to think too much about it.
The others is
all going back in.
First you got to
eat, then you can think
[“Henry Burgess Decides to Go Back In”]
There’s the company-hired school teacher, torn between
compassion and a paycheck:
Robert Davis’s father and two brothers
are dead and
Nathan Stokes is missing.
When they told
Mrs. Davis, she slid down
on herself like
melting wax on a candle
then shook off
the women who rushed
to hold her.
[“Journal of Catherine Terry, 5 December 1920”]
Among others, there are children (“Even our
spelling words / is rock words,
like ‘sediment’ and ‘petrified’” [“Pearlie Tells What Happened At
School”]); African-Americans (“We all colored / down there in the dirt
the dark” [“Good Man in the Mine”]); and Italian immigrants (“The
is rocky in the mouth, / so many hard sounds they batter the tongue like
coal clattering from the tipple” [“L’Inglese”]).
Even the company owner has his say, finding —
much as Fisher does throughout the collection — beauty in ugliness:
coke ovens at night
opening on the
of a hearth for
a new world.
[“Beautiful, the Owner Says”]
The most poignant poems are the “Dear Hazel”
letters in which an older
sister pens advice on everything from marriage (“Some men, they get in
the mine, and it gets them. They won’t do nothing else, nor care /
anymore for what goes on in the sun.”) to abortion (“As for the other
thing / you ask, Hazel, the answer is this: / three tablespoons of
sugar and turpentine.”).
The centerpiece of the book is a 10-page
series of thoughts from a miner
trapped by a “kettle bottom,” a collapse that results when a
several-hundred-pound petrified tree trunk drops through a mine’s
roof. This poem, “Raven Light,” marks one of the few moments in
the book in which Fisher falters. The speaker is facing certain death,
but his thought process — while full of rich images — feels too
organized, too ordered. A true stream-of-consciousness poem would have
been harder to follow but more interesting.
There are other instances in which parts of
poems, particularly endings, seem a little forced. In “Sheepskin,” for
example, the speaker talks back to a doctor:
I know is not wrote
doctor, I told him.
I said, What I
is wrote on the
It’s a strong ending — maybe too strong. More likely this woman — like
most of us — would think of the perfect retort well after she’d left
the doctor’s office. I’d find it more credible — and more in keeping
with her sense of powerlessness — if the woman had wished, as an
afterthought, that she’d spoken these words.
Another poem, “Violet’s Wash,” ends with:
thought I’d die that first week
when I seen him
walk off to the mine,
on his shirt
over his shoulders, right
would of folded.
The angel metaphor, lovely as it is, seems a
bit too poetic for a miner’s wife. This ending also presents another
problem: how is it that our speaker knows, for instance, to hyphenate
“burnt-looking” but doesn’t know that “would of” should be “would
have”? If the answer is that she’s speaking, not writing, perhaps this
woman is proof that aspiring poets should all go to mining towns
instead of M.F.A. programs. The lines, like a few others in the
collection, are too elegant by a half, pointing to the dilemma inherent
in writing persona poems (especially those that include, as this book
does, “mountain” words like “painter” for “bobcat” and “sang” for
“ginseng”). It’s hard to know what’s enough and what’s too much.
These are minor criticisms. Fisher wanted
poems that resonate, and let’s face it, most people don’t think in
symbols and similes. A few of the folks in Kettle Bottom needed Fisher’s help,
and, in most cases, the poems are better for it.
In the pillars poem — aptly titled “Samson”
for its biblical allusion — company bosses are terrified when the
speaker vents his anger by demonstrating the fragility of the coal
Bosses begin to edge back toward the hall.
I stood in their
way. With my right hand
I pressed one
pillar, the other with my left.
the mountain we all the same.
In this, her second full-length collection,
Fisher forces her readers to confront the painful realities of poverty,
discrimination, brutality, and death. If we try to run, she is there
like the angry miner, blocking our way with another poem, another
haunting story. Our kettle bottom may be an imaginary one, but we are
wide-eyed, stricken, and breathless, nonetheless.
Fisher, Diane Gilliam. Kettle
Bottom. Florence, MA: Perugia Press, 2004. ISBN:
© by Erin Murphy