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Coal Country


What I can’t remember and what I can:
my mother washing coal dust from the necks
of Mason jars filled with last summer’s jams
and vegetables, their lids and rings black
with grit, contents obscured then visible
beneath the touch of a damp flannel rag
she wiped across hand-printed labels
then dipped again into an enamel pan
where gray water settled from suds to silt.
Those cloths were always discarded, never
used for dishes again, deemed unfit
for the kitchen. Fifty years are over
now: I’ve known sullied cloth and family:
how some stains never wash out completely.


Some stains never wash out completely
but my mother’s mother, Mary, would scrub
worn camisas for the soiled but neatly
oiled and pompadoured Mexican railroad-
tie men who came to coal country laying
the wooden ties two thousand to the mile.
Boiled in lye, bleach in the wash and bluing
in the rinse, the shirts emerged starkly white
and innocent as angels. But these iron horsemen
of the Apocalypse, bearing spikes and crosses
for coal and cattle, carried pestilence
with them in that Spring of early losses—
my grandfather dead of flu in ’17—
not knowing the damage that would be done.


Not knowing the damage that could be done
we swam in the bright green lake of caustic
water. We thought it daring fun to plunge
beneath the foamy surface, opalescent
with chemicals that oozed unseen from dull
slag heaps: gray hillocks of thick detritus
left from the processing of newly-mined coal.
Knox County was blessed with bituminous
veins, cursed with the scars of its retrieval.
By the sixties, production had slowed down
to a handful of mines that were viable:
the older underground shafts abandoned,
while strip mining left the once-lush landscape stark,
rusted hoppers spilled coal beside old tracks.


Railroad hoppers spilled coal beside new tracks
as my mother, at ten, scurried along
the crisply graveled rail bed packing sacks
of burlap with the fuel that had fallen
from overfilled cars. On her lucky days
the bags grew heavy quickly and no snow
fell across the hills or, ankle-deep, lay
filling up the trackside ditches below
where the tiny tank town of Appleton,
Illinois, lay crammed into the valley.
And sometimes when the weak winter sun
grew thin as gruel from a caboose galley
kind wind-burned men climbed atop the coal cars
and the black heat was gently handed down to her.


This was how the black heat was handled: First,
the topsoil was peeled back by bulldozers
and piled aside for reclamation. Burst
through with draglines the veins lying closer
to the surface were fractured, making it
easy to scoop the coal from the ground.
Crushed and separated, refined for what-
ever use it was destined: fine powder
for the power plant at Havana, coke
for steel, stoker coal for industry, egg and lump
for the furnaces of homes. Shale, sandstone,
pyrite—impurities—were hauled away and dumped
like wasted lives: what helps and what hinders
and what remains: dead ash and cold cinders.


And this is what remained: dead ash and cold cinders
carried in an old coal hod to the driveway,
dumped in the low places. Rusty clinkers
of stony matter fused together by
the great heat of what warmed our little home
on sharp winter mornings. And in summer
the sunlight spiked off the marcasite nodes:
jewels that scraped and stung, lodging under
the skin of my shins and knees when I fell
from my bike to the cinders and gravel.
White scars remain to remind and foretell:
the last delivery truck of T.O. Miles;
shadows filling empty corners of the coal
room: one small, high window like a square halo.


One small, high window with a square halo
of light around the ill-fitting metal door:
coal lumps heaped up the walls. Dust billowed
through the air, covering the worn brick floor,
my father’s tools stored inside for the winter,
and the many shelves of canning jars, contours
soft beneath a veil of dull black. Heat sent
rising through the grates above and the roar
of the ancient furnace were a living
pulse to which we pressed our ears and bodies
until the natural gas lines reached us, ending
our affair with coal. But like lost love’s memories
swept clean, damp days a dark stench still rises and chokes
with what I can remember and what I won’t.