The following email message appeared in my inbox over the weekend:
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) - National radio says at least 31 people have been killed in a mudslide at an unofficial gold mine in Burkina Faso. There are thousands of unofficial, or bush mines, in West Africa. Desperately poor villagers eke out a living, risking their lives to descend deep chutes and then use mercury to force the gold out of the dirt. The mines are especially treacherous during the monsoon season. According to radio reports, the landslide was brought on by heavy rains in a mining village in southwest Burkina Faso. Local authorities are digging for survivors.
The email was sent to me by the United States Mine Rescue Association’s listserv (to which I’ve subscribed for years—which is probably not that surprising to anyone who perused my Harriet post, Poetics (Mine), a few weeks ago). And in my ongoing exploration of Langston Hughes’ interrogative (“What kind of poem/Would you/Make out of that?”), I like to keep tabs on the global extractive industries and especially their toll (Engels called it “social murder”) on working people across the globe.

Enter Laurent Salgues’ stunning film Rêves de poussière (Dreams of Dust), which eerily also arrived in my mailbox this weekend and which I had an opportunity to watch both late last night and again early this morning with the news from Ouagadougou still fresh in my head and in my heart. Rêves de poussière opens in a barren geography of Burkina Faso seemingly ablaze in orange tones—long, slow establishing shots that will frame the arid, arduous landscape of the next ninety minutes of (mostly global Northern) viewers lives. Slowly, individuals begin to appear as if prairie dogs, poking their skulls, torsos, and finally their entire selves from holes dug forty meters into the earth. Welcome to mining conditions in much of Africa (and elsewhere across the globe) nearly one hundred years after “Johannesburg Mines.”
The narrative of Salgues’ measured and carefully-unfurling film traces a moment in the life story of a Nigerian migrant worker named Mocktar who arrives in a gold mining camp in Burkina Faso looking for a survival wage. The conditions at the camp are rudimentary and hauntingly familiar to those you’d read about in American mining towns in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Workers pound rocks usually absent of the precious mineral with pestle, mortar and muscle; mine guards secure the camp by searching the belongings of each person who enters and departs (like our own airports in this age of permanent suspicion and surveillence); beer and Fanta soda (orange, of course) are available—only at the mining-company controlled outdoor canteen; and the working conditions are nothing short of utter physical, psychological, and social brutality.
What kind of poem
Would you
Make out of that?
Salgues constructs a work of creative expression that—if we place it in conversation with, say, Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead and Hughes’ “Johannesburg Mines” and the mining photographs of Sebastião Salgado and Milton Rogovin or any of the other works I mentioned in my previous post—articulates yet another node in the aesthetic, the social, and the ethical under not nearly late enough capitalism. As we follow Mocktar forty meters deep into the desert foxhole that is his crews’ mine shaft and from which he later emerges at the point of collapse from lack of oxygen, into the physician’s office after he crushes his thigh with his pestle (this after his employer shouts “The Nigerian is going to put me out of business!” to speed up his work on this miniscule moment in the global production line); as we learn of Mocktar’s tragedy-laden past, meet the mining-widow Coumba and her daughter Mariama who will briefly become an eternity in Mocktar’s ever so brief present, and peek at the absences that will likely saturate Mocktar’s laborious future, we begin to imagine that space where the first person singular meets the first person plural on the global scale, that space—(as I wrote in "Poetics (Mine)"), the simultaneously past and present and future, that quasi-(anti-)-montage-temporality that poems [and films] somehow so powerfully and so often produce)—where we are permitted to read the news this weekend from Ouagadougou and know “at least 31 people have been killed” at an even deeper, more individual and hopefully more collective, global, human level.
In a (poetic) word: Rêves de poussière (Dreams of Dust) is, as Langston Hughes asked, one kind of (cinematic) “poem” I would hope to be made out of that.

Originally Published: August 11th, 2008

Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants, Shut Up Shut Down (afterword by Amiri Baraka), and Coal Mountain Elementary (2009), all from Coffee House Press. His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics (Wesleyan...

  1. August 11, 2008
     Don Share

    I thought right away of the coal miner and poet, Joseph Skipsey, much beloved by Basil Bunting, who'd seen a mining disaster or two himself in Newcastle.
    Here's Skipsey's poem, "Get Up!"
    "Get up!" the caller calls, "Get up!"
    And in the dead of night,
    To win the bairns their bite and sup,
    I rise a weary wight.
    My flannel dudden donn'd, thrice o'er
    My birds are kiss'd, and then
    I with a whistle shut the door,
    I may not ope again.

  2. August 11, 2008

    Hi Mark,
    I am so glad that you are blogging up a storm of conscience and poetry--it's wonderful to read the interview with Phinder and to learn about your work around mines. I hadn't known about Spring Hill, NS, but I do know that Canadian mining companies are inflicting devastating damage around the world and in Canada itself ( - click on companies and then Platinex to find out about how exploration for platinum led to the incarceration of First Nations leaders in northern Ontario who refuse to allow their traditional lands to be mined and exploited).
    I like how you described "first person singular meets the first person plural on the global scale."
    In solidarity,

  3. August 12, 2008
     Mozart Guerrier

    thanks, a lot for this article. i'm so naive that i didn't know mining& miners rights, was such a huge human rights issue. The words that you wrote about hughes... keep coming back over and over in my head. the film looks stunning. thanks, again.

  4. August 13, 2008

    Again, thanks for this, Mark. We'll miss you when your tenure here is up.
    Because my son is in an "accumulatory" phase--he loves rocks, gems, gold, all things "precious" or "rare," which means whatever he decides it means--I recently took him and my nephew to a mining town in Nevada (Virginia City). You know, the air in that town, it's soaked with blood. You can feel it. It's not extracted from the ground, gold; it's extracted from people. From what I gather, though, Virginia City was one of the first places where the miners unionized.
    You're probably already hip to these, Mark, but I wanted to add to your bibliography Cesar Vallejo's Tungsten as well as the recent Thomas Pynchon novel, which I'm yet to finish, Against the Day. It deals with pre-IWW militancy among Colorado miners. More than any other Pynchon novel, the conflict in this one is clearly, starkly, between capital and labor. . .
    Also, do you remember this advertisement? Coal, it's sexy. . .

  5. August 13, 2008
     Mark Nowak

    Thanks for the great comments to this posting. Rita, I hope lots of folks will look at the link you provided; Mozart, I sent you a few things I thought might interest you through Myspace; and Jasper, thanks for bringing up GE Energy's *vile* advertisement--for the other side of the (visual) conversation, people should search "China Coal Mine Died" at the Getty images site. Also, the history of "Sixteen Tons" (the song in the ad) is quite interesting, and Youtube has some great versions by Johnny Cash, The Platters, and others.