Thursday, January 05, 2006

Collateral Damage

The initial tragedy at the Sago Mine has given way to analysis of what happened and why. A picture emerges of this place and this life - part of the national consciousness for a little while, before the camera crews move on.
This poem was written in the early 1990s, when I was a reporter at a newspaper in a small West Virginia mining town. I’d covered a handful of murders, a lot of shootings and stabbings, a few suicides – the backdrop for them all, a region where two of the nation’s worst mine disasters were the history highlights and where most of the industry had dried up and disappeared.
The poem was published some years back in Hard Love: Writings on Violence and Intimacy, edited by Elizabeth Claman and published by Queen of Swords Press.

Things Are Close to the Surface Here

In this small town we number
murders on the fingers of one hand:

A man killed his wife
for serving
green beans one more night.

A man killed his lover’s husband,
shooting through a closed
door, buckshot unfurling
a Decoration Day peony
from the tight bud of his chest.

A man laid flame in the halls
of an apartment building;
a woman leaped,
shoulders winged with sinewless flame,
her hope-chest china
found white,
unbroken, after three floors collapsed.

One shot a woman pregnant with his child
in the parking lot of the police station,
under the window where a dispatcher
scowled over a needlepoint posy
and logged 10-7 calls for lunch.

* * *

No one writes this
in police reports,
but when it gets too warm in early April
quiet men start fights
because they are idle,
and old factory ways tangle their feet
like bindweeds of abandoned fields.

Black granite cannot keep
the changing names
of those lost in economic wars.
They make a slow memorial
on the courthouse square;
they wear their empty hands,
medals of obsolete conflict,
fine metal forced
into a particular shape
by a die that no longer exists.

They have all lost
something physical
though the loss may not be seen.
That man, missing
the four fingers of one hand,
another without a foot,
and him, the man whose hip joint
was fused in some impact
so that he goes swinging his leg outward,
compassing mute circles.

* * *

When the ground gives under foot
it may be only the tunneling of a mole
(that striving panicked little body)

or the land may be subsiding
into the place where coal was

or the runoff that flashes silver
in drowned hay might just have found
a shorter channel to oblivion.

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