The Operating System


Descend into the dark earth to make your meager living. Identify your spouse in a pile of bodies by some intimate detail no one else knows. Watch as the frosty morning pales your baby’s face as you are forced from your home into a tattered tent. Die slowly in the endless shadows, hallucinating ravens.
This is the reality of coal mining, the black heart of Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom, a remarkable volume of poetry that illuminates the West Virginia mine wars of 1920-1921. This is Fisher’s second full-length book, and it begins with the poem:
Explosion at Winco No. 9
Delsey Salyer knowed Tom Junior by his toes,
which his steel-toed boots had kept the fire off of.
Betty Rose seen a piece of Willy’s ear, the little
notched part where a hound had bit him
when he was a young’un, playing at eating its food.
It is true that it is the men that goes in, but it is us
that carries the mine inside. It is us that listens
to what all they are scared of and takes
the weight of it from them, like handing off
a sack of meal. Us that learns by heart
birthmarks, scars, bends of fingers,
how the teeth set crooked or straight.
Us that picks up the pieces.
.                                          .I didn’t have
nothing to patch with but my old blue dress,
and Ted didn’t want floweredy goods
on his shirt. I told him, It’s just under your arm,
Ted, it ain’t going to show.

.                                       .They brung out bodies,
you couldn’t tell. I seen a piece of my old blue dress
on one of them bodies, blacked with smoke,
but I could tell it was my patch, up under the arm.
When the man writing in the big black book
come around asking about identifying marks,
I said, blue dress. I told him, Maude Stanley, 23.
It is us that carries the mine inside”
I first encountered Fisher’s work as an undergrad. My then-husband was in the Army and had been in Afghanistan for 6 months—he wouldn’t return for another 6. I was at a loss to express the sense of impending disaster that pursued me. I was in tears before reaching the end of “Explosion at Winco No. 9.” The book consumed me quickly, and I read it over and over again. It was a balm, a drug. Kettle Bottom floored me: tragedy, loss, and thin hope lived on each page. I felt isolated from anyone who might have shared in my experience—Kettle Bottom was my touchstone then, and even now.
The book is carefully constructed and yet the narratives and voices feel natural and authentic. The haunting middle section, “Raven Light,” features a lone soul wandering the lightless “rooms” after a cave-in leaves him alive and alone. He walks until the passageway becomes too small, at times feeling a certain peace with his lot, at others desperate to see the face of his wife in the sweet light of day once more. The bleak realities of mining life are made manifest in the first section, and the second section forces the reader to imagine that awful, slow kind of death. The third and final section awakens outrage and fear in the face of brutal adversity.
20 different speakers display diversity in age, sex, nationality, and race. Children, mothers, grandmothers, Italian immigrants, African Americans, and miners of all ages populate the book. From the very first page the perspectives differ and together they create a full and true world. The recurrence of some voices heightens the intimacy of the stories. Though the poems are at times overwhelming and heavy to carry, precocious children, acts of honor and courage, sex, love, and even hope buoy the reader.
Fisher, a PhD in Romance Languages from The Ohio State University who earned her MFA at Warren Wilson, returned to her Appalachian roots to write this volume. She had to relearn the familial West Virginian accent she had struggled to erase, and its authenticity cleverly laces these poems.
Biographically, Fisher is a bit of a mystery. A professor of Women’s Studies at Smith College had introduced me to Fisher’s work—it was from that professor that I learned of Fisher’s shyness about her accent and her ambition to achieve non-regional diction. How difficult it must have been for Fisher to move both backward and forward—to embrace the painful family history she had avoided. The result is a finely tuned voice, poetic and elegant, grating against the grit of a world of coal mining.
Fisher’s book Kettle Bottom has had a substantial emotional impact on my life; it still offers a therapy I couldn’t have found elsewhere. All writers strive for a unique voice, and Fisher aptly encapsulates and illuminates a culture and period of time—but as a 20-year-old newlywed who felt doom looming, what I needed more than an impressive poetic influence was the reality, the truth, of this book.
At this moment, Southern Colorado is memorializing similar events in mining history at Ludlow 100 years ago. Even in the last few years there have been mining disasters and deaths. This way of life, this way of making a living, still permeates our culture, and its disasters still weigh on our collective psyche. Fisher’s book captures that weight, and her compelling voice permeates it.
Filling Out Forms
After Diane Gilliam Fisher’s “Explosion at Winco No. 9”
Now, she halts at the question Father’s Occupation,
.        .writes Deceased.
The same way she always hesitated at Check One Box,
.        .clicked Black
.        .& White.
When the form asked for Identifying Marks
.        .she wrote flame tattoo,
.        .lifted the morgue’s plastic skirt
.        .to see.
When the form asked for Last Known Address
.        .she wrote bends of fingers,
.        .a sack of meal.
When the form asked for Preferred Religious Service
.        .she wrote carrying the mine
.        .inside.
When the form asked for her Name
.        .she wrote Closest Living Relative, 23.
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image]Alysse Kathleen McCanna was born and raised in the Midwest.  She graduated from Smith College in 2007 and is currently pursuing her MFA in Writing and Literature at Bennington College in Vermont.  Alysse’s poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Southwestern American Literature, Pilgrimage, Eleventh Muse, Calliope, and The Comstock Review, among others.  She was recently the winner of Sixfold’s winter poetry contest.
Editor’s note: Thanks to previous contributor, Abigail Welhouse, for connecting us up with Alysse! This is the first you’ll read of many entries this year whose authors were brought on by the invitation of previous participants, something we heartily encourage. Inch by inch, row by row…
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