To call Mark Nowak’s haunting new book a collection of poetry would be a bit of a misnomer. It would also be misleading to say Nowak is its author. The poems in Coal Mountain Elementary comprise three strands of found text; Nowak has selected and braided them, achieving an arresting effect. This is a book that exposes the darkest reaches of the global coal industry by using the industry’s own means—politely referred to as “extraction”—to lay bare the official language used to obfuscate mining’s human and environmental impact and to recover the far truer language of miners themselves.
Nowak’s first strand consists of verbatim extracts from thousands of pages of testimony given by family members, safety officials, and survivors of the Sago Mine explosion, which occurred January 2, 2006, in Sago, West Virginia. The explosion left twelve miners dead and became, for a couple days, a story of national heartbreak. The operation to rescue thirteen trapped miners was famously muddled, and incorrect information was released to the press, leading family members to cheers of deliverance, only for them to learn after hours of celebration that, in fact, only one miner had survived. Attempts to conduct a meaningful investigation into the disaster and botched rescue effort were thwarted by the mine’s corporate owner, International Coal Group, West Virginia mining officials, the United States Department of Labor, and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, groups that opposed making public the very testimony Nowak has so carefully selected.
Nowak lets the situation speak for itself, and the absence of his own words is potent. Grieving families and coworkers and their anguish over the lost miners is quietly pitted against the banalities of a gang of New York investment bankers and state and federal bureaucrats rendered collusive by the brushstroke of coal-industry deregulation, which began during the Clinton era and became a new art under the Bush administration. One miner reports, “I called my daughter and wife. I don’t remember which one answered the phone. I believe it was my wife answered, yeah. And told her that the mine had blew up and her brother was still in there and told her to come on up to the mine.” The testimony sits mildly on the page, like a tamed prose poem.
Nowak’s second vein is culled from Chinese newspapers, usually brief clippings that report the loss—through explosion, fire, or flood—of hundreds of miners at a time. Following a hasty investigation at such a disaster site, a local official is typically singled out and fired; soon thereafter, the mine resumes operation. Many sections of Coal Mountain Elementary that refer to Chinese mine disasters are accompanied by Nowak’s and Ian Teh’s photographs of a wasted industrial nowhere. Teh’s images often present a solitary miner, obscured by dust swirling from a tipple or peering from a dimly lit cavern; both miner and landscape appear worn and exhausted.
Nowak’s final strand of found material would have made the Dadaists proud. He has selected sections of lesson plans the American Coal Foundation makes available on its website for school teachers who might view learning about the coal industry through an industry advocacy organization a legitimate educational endeavor. One such lesson plan, which Nowak has fiendishly sliced into a lyric poem, pretty much says it all:
are required by federal law
to return the land they mine
to its original, or an improved, condition.
This process, known as reclamation,
is a significant expense for the industry.
Many coal-mining facilities operate twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fueling rapid industrial expansion in places like China and powering dishwashers and toasters in places like Connecticut. But in many ways, coal mining is the same everywhere. Most mines are located in remote places with little economic diversity, leaving local workers and their families vulnerable to the only game in town. Despite being tucked away in rural areas, however, many mining operations function on an unimaginable scale: The combined area of mountaintop-removal sites in West Virginia and Kentucky, for example, will be as big as Delaware by the end of the decade; an open-pit mine in Wyoming is visible from space. A third shared point in mining operations the world over is the willingness of industry and government officials to whitewash mining’s human and environmental costs.
Coal Mountain Elementary shares a spirit with American populist poets of a hundred years ago, like Vachel Lindsay, and labor-activist poets like Don West. With such writers, we don’t go looking for the memorable line or image; instead, we enjoy the sum and the accumulation. Nowak surely offers his readers the resonating effects of poetry in this original, highly imagined, and very sad book.
Maurice Manning's most recent book is Bucolics (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007). He lives in Kentucky.