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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics


Review of Diane Gilliam Fisher's Second Book of Poetry



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 . . . .

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:

          We come back in when the rooms is all mined
          and pull them down, we don’t leave nothing
          behind. I’ve 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” [“Raven Light”].
     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 Oscar 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 his shirt:

                                  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,
          you couldn’t 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:

          It 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
          about thinking.
                         [“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 / and
the dark” [“Good Man in the Mine”]); and Italian immigrants (“The English
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:

          The coke ovens at night
          glow orange, like eyes
          opening on the hillside,
          like oracles, the founding
          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:

          What I know is not wrote
          on sheepskin, doctor, I told him.
          I said, What I know
          is wrote on the wall.

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:

          I thought I’d die that first week
          when I seen him walk off to the mine,
          black, burnt-looking marks
          on his shirt over his shoulders, right
          where wings 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 walls:

          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.
          I explained—To 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: 0-9660459-7-1  $15.00

© by Erin Murphy

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