Friday, April 09, 2010

West Virginia - a miner's life

This poem was written in the early 1990s, when I was a reporter at a newspaper in a small West Virginia 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 black granite references a memorial to the miners lost in 1968 at Farmington No. 9 – some of the workings of that sealed mine ran under my farm.

The poem was published in the anthology Hard Love: Writings on Violence and Intimacy, edited by Elizabeth Claman.

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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