One of the things that can happen – perhaps uniquely – with poetry that appropriates existing texts is that this repositioning of a text into a poem can also dramatically redirect our understanding of that text back within its original source. Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009) does exactly that. Coal Mountain Elementary is a kind of activist poetry comprised of preexisting texts that have been combined with color photographs by Nowak and British photojournalist Ian Teh.
The book gives us three radically different modes of written discourse on the subject of coal mining: newspaper accounts of mining disasters in China, verbatim testimony from survivors of the deadly January 2006 Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia, and the American Coal Foundation’s suggested curriculum guide for school children. In addition, we are given two distinct sets of photographs – Nowak’s photographs of American mining towns and Teh’s portraits of Chinese miners and images of miners at work.
It doesn’t take long to figure out the book’s basic game plan. The testimony of the Sago Mine survivors more or less walks us through the day of the disaster in the words of the miners. The newspaper excerpts provide factual and historical background for numerous mine disasters, reminding us (among other things) of the horrible frequency with which these events occur. And the photographs bring us face to face with the miners, the conditions in which they work,and the communities in which they live and die. Unified, these elements weave a deliberately stark contrast with the oversimplified, sugar-coated image of mining offered by the American Coal Foundation. The book is divided into three main sections, each named after an elementary school level lesson plan found on the American Coal Foundation’s website.
1. participate in
a simulated “mining”
of chocolate chips
using play money to purchase
the necessary property,
tools, and labor;
the various costs
associated with mining coal,
including environmental remediation,
as demonstrated in the simulation; and
calculate costs and profits
from cookie mining
and relate them to the mining industry.
Needless to say, within the loaded context of Coal Mountain Elementary, the failure of the school lesson plans to make any reference whatsoever to the dangers of mining or the “cost” of death and disability to the miners makes us realize that these innocent-looking “lesson plans” are actually corporate propaganda.
So let’s look beyond the activist message at the very curious type of poetry we have here. As the book begins, we immediately read a newspaper account of a mining disaster in China in which the wife of a dead miner is quoted as saying “I have no language for my feelings…and there’s no way anybody else can understand it.” Throughout Coal Mountain Elementary the quotations from surviving miners and the widows of miners are strikingly subdued in the wake of the horror which has forever changed their lives. The testimonies given by the Sago miners are scattered throughout with phrases like “you know,” as each miner reaches a point in the recalling when he asks the listener to intuitively comprehend what he cannot utter.
And that morning I just – I did actually notice though and I made the comment of an old wive’s tale, you know, what does this mean, this lightning and thunder in January because where I’m from there’s always a – you know, the frogs in certain parts of the year and things like that. But I went to the door and opened the door because it was lightning and thunder carrying on so bad and it was so warm for the second day of January. You know, I asked two or three people, you know, what could this mean, you know. I mean, there’s got to be a tale of some sort, you know.
These transcript excerpts (which can be found in their entirety online) become a poetry of circumvention, of reticence, of talking around the emotional issues. But then, these verbal statements were recorded under highly formal circumstances in the company of state mining officials, attorneys, and other investigators, which undoubtedly inflected the speech of the miners and rescuers. Nevertheless, reading the transcripts chosen by Nowak strictly as a form of discourse, there is something wonderful about the ebb and flow of unedited oral language, the meandering path toward the important point, the abrupt changes in direction, the sudden intense focus.
Hang in there, we’re going to get you out. And I put myself, my eyes on his hand, and I noticed he had a wedding band on, and I’m thinking about this young man. And I watch his hand all the way out to see if he moved any, and that’s what I did. I was watching to see if I could see any movements. But I did notice his wedding band on his hand. He never did move his hand that I could see.
And, in fact, the miners had developed a code that referred to bodies as “items,” in hopes that anyone listening in on their radio conversations would not immediately realize that there were dead miners.
Likewise, transformed through its new context, the school lesson plans offered by the American Coal Foundation become a poetry of evasion, avoiding the harsh realities of coal mining in favor of a few banal subjects: “coal flowers”( a traditional craft in which pieces of coal are crystallized), “mining” for chocolate chips, and studying the sociology of the small towns that coal companies have provided for their workers.
For a book about violent and sudden death, Coal Mountain Elementary is pretty restrained. The few flashes of anger and outrage at the poor wages, terrible working conditions, and repeated safety violations appear mostly in the newspaper journalism. But the impact of the book’s message is not restrained in the least.