Coal-Hearted Man

By D. Bruckshaw Campbell

D. Campbell, from Franklin County, Virginia, is an Assistant Professor of English and Journalism at Ferrum College. He has a bachelor of journalism degree from University of Missouri-Columbia and an MFA in Creative Writing from National University in San Diego. This poem was published previously in Journal of Contemporary American Poetry. It is reprinted here with permission of the author. Note that this is a poem about the hardships of coal mining and was not designed for young readers in particular. For more on children's and young adult literature about coal mining communities and background resources, see the bibliography in this web site, Struggles for Life, Liberty, and Land: Appalachian Mining Communities in Children’s and Young Adult Literature.

In winter, I never see the sun.
But on a good day, I get to see a little bit of dawn
coming over the ridge before they lower us down.
Nobody talks in the cage.
Just the pulley squeaking at the rats
as they drop us in the pit.

Nobody talks because we’re thinking about dying.
So I close my eyes. The fellas think I’m praying,
but really, I’m remembering breakfast.
Eggs frying in an iron skillet—
sounding just like the rain smacking a mud puddle.
The smell of sausage creeping under the bedroom door.
Evelyn at the table with a cup of coffee, smiling
like it’s gonna be a good day.

Then the pulley jerks and I’m thinking about dying again.
We keep going down into the black nothing.
Past the mules gone blind from never seeing daylight.
Past the rancid smell of their manure.
Past tunnel six that the company sealed with 15 miners inside.
The sound of their screaming ghosts
echoing through every vein of coal.

When they let us out of the cage, it’s still a mile to the face.
I walk and crawl through water and mud
that soaks my boots and clothes.
Through the darkness.
Supplies strapped across our backs.
Crouching and creeping the last 200 feet
on our hands and knees.
Just to spend the rest of the day crumpled in a knot,
Chipping away at the backside of a mountain.

You’ve never seen so much black. So much nothing.
It’s not like a summer sky with stars to wish on.
Sure isn’t for a man who can’t be alone with his thoughts.
When you turn off your headlamp, nobody’s there but you
and your eyes strain to see, but there’s nothing to see except more black.
Hard to tell the whole world could cave in any minute.
But it’s there. It never goes away. Even once you’re out.

By lunch, my face is as black as the air we cut through to get here.
But I don’t eat much. I can’t.
Already swallowed enough coal dust to fill my gut,
and my tongue feels like it’s been wrapped in wool.
Deep inside I know what I don’t swallow ends up in my lungs.
One day, they’ll be black as this hole.
Just like Daddy’s.
And his Daddy’s.

Fingers are cut and scarred
from sharp slate and coal,
nails rubbed down and bleeding
from scratching dirt and rock.
My hands are so rough, Evelyn can’t stand my touch,
and before it’s all over, they’ll just be crippled claws.

But I reckon so long as I can hold a pick-axe,
I’ll find my way to the mine to make the money for the house
I rarely see and the food I can’t eat.
And on the way up, the fellas thank God
in raspy voices for getting them out one more time,
teeth and whites of their eyes all I can see.
I don’t say thanks.
God isn’t in that hole.

copyright 2022 D. Campbell
all rights reserved

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