Poetry News

25 miners killed in West Virginia coal mine blast

For the past several years – since the Sago mine disaster on January 2, 2006, to be precise – I have been closely tracking the global mining industries and their horrific record on worker safety. About this time last year, when my book Coal Mountain Elementary was published, I began a blog that updates disasters such as the one that devastated West Virginia yesterday – 25 miners killed, 4 miners still missing – on an almost daily basis. And my Facebook friends, who read or skim or skip these daily “updates” (death tolls) on my profile, and seldom “like” them, will nod their heads.

Coal Mountain Elementary is a book comprised, perhaps, of what Kenneth Goldsmith in an earlier post called “provisional language” – culled verbatim from the testimonies of Sago miners and mine rescue crews, newspaper reports from the almost daily mine disasters in China, and curriculum for grammar school children produced by the not-for-profit, pro-coal American Coal Foundation. Yet, reading through more than 6,000 pages of Sago testimony and several thousand Chinese newspaper reports of mine disasters, I have found this language to be anything but a debased, temporary “mere material.”

When I read the NYTimes and CNN reports from Montcoal, West Virginia (and columns like Jeff Biggers’ "Who killed the miners?"), I hear constant echoes of the Sago testimonies and the Chinese newspaper reports – mine officials speaking “newspeak,” government officials claiming this will never happen again, family members at a complete loss for words. “I have no language for my feelings,” says a Chinese miners’ wife (now widow) at the beginning of Coal Mountain Elementary, “and there’s no way anybody else can understand it.”

I’m also painfully reminded of the conversations I had after the theater department at Davis & Elkins College – about 20 miles from the Sago mine –premiered the book as a play and several relatives of those miners who died at Sago came to the performances. Once Anderson Cooper and the news crews disappear – and they always disappear – the relatives spoke about how the pain didn’t disappear and that they didn’t want what happened at Sago to be forgotten.

Reading and watching the reports from West Virginia last night and this morning, I guess I just can’t get myself to see words as “empty signifiers, floating on the invisibility of the network.” I see them instead as heavy, deeply loaded signifiers of “news that stays news” in the lives of underground miners who risk their lives each and every day across the globe.

And I praise them.

And I offer my deepest condolences to all those families in southern West Virginia, where once again coal has reared its devastating wrath.

Originally Published: April 6th, 2010

Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants (Coffee House Press, 2000), Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2008), and Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009). His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New...