comments 4

NOTES: Coal Mountain Elementary by Mark Nowak (Coffee House Press, 2009)

Book Good. Cover Fonts Kind Of Silly.

Book Good. Cover Fonts Kind Of Silly.

Coal Mountain Elementary is ostensibly labeled as poetry, but it is also a radical sort of reportage or (and this title has always seemed cumbersome) “creative non-fiction.”  The book is a selection of photographs by Ian Teh and excerpts from testimonials from the 2006 Sago Mine disaster that killed 12, newspapers covering Chinese mining disasters in 2005 and 2006, and lesson plans prepared by the American Coal Foundation to teach elementary, middle, and high school students about coal, mining, and coal culture.  I say that what Nowak does is  select and not collage because the units of prose that are excerpted are paragraphs and each excerpt occupies its own page. Collage would suggest more disjunction than seems to be intended and more of an effacing of the source of the collaged material.  Compare an excerpt from Nowak’s previous book, Shut Up Shut Down–

It was a mill town, he says, singing “mill” with a blend of affection and pity. A trace (far removed): my grandfather stepping off the Clinton Street bus and into a Kaisertown gin mill, Bethlehem Steel (still) scratched across his face. A mill town is not a goddamn residential neighborhood. Loading crates unloaded, oil drums bent and empty, glass shattered (past tense verbs) where the window frames (never/the/less) remain. When I walk on the sidewalk (here, or hear), I know when it’s heaving from tree roots.

–to a page in Coal Mountain–

Then after that, we just walked around. I had a family member come and check on me. I walked over to the pit and just stared at the pit for a long time, just hoping to see them walk out.

Here Nowak lets the source interviewees speak more for themselves, for their voices to become fuller. While the first passage reveals all kinds of authorial interventions into the source text and through the friction between the different texts at play leaves the reader with more space to play in and make meaning, Coal Mountain is far more interested in routing its reader to one set of disjunctions, that between one passage and the next–between expressive pictures and the bare bones of lesson plan instructions, between the dramatic arc of testimony in regard to Sago rescue efforts and the flatness of disaster as reported by newspapers.  It’s tempting to say that Shut Up Shut Down is the more complex text and that Coal Mountain is less complex and more didactic.  But it’s Coal Mountain’s dedication to a singular task that makes it what it is: it wants to tell you through its various strategies that the job of coal mining is frequently deadly, mine owners are negligent, and that there are  forces out there that want you to ignore this aspect of the industry.   And, perhaps more importantly, through the litany of contemporary Chinese mining disasters sustained over 176 pages, that the exploitation of the labor of miners is an ongoing problem.

Phil Levine is the poet of labor for a number of generations of readers. However, his poems on the working class and the industrial landscape of Detroit are increasingly flooded in a sepia light. As we move forward, the conditions of the laborers in his poems seem more of a thing of the past.  Similar poems written from the position of the lyric I further bury labor into the past and as a condition which the writer of the poem has overcome–something that forms a piece of the speaker’s narrative.  Or, worse, they find equivalences between the labor of writing and the labor of the body. Nowak goes to great lengths to give present the voices of the poems’ workers within a narrative that, instead of transcending the state of the heavy-industry worker, leads us to confront its most miserable aspects:

I tried to check everybody’s–I checked everybody’s pulse. I felt for a pulse. And I think most of them had hemorrhaged, hemorrhaged out, and there was some physical evidence there that you could see. I mean, that I thought, you know, with the hemorrhaging, most of them had hemorrhaged and some of them, there was foam, a lot of foam, and a pulse. They were icy cold. And they appeared to be deceased.

It does seem (as blurbs claim) that Nowak is reactivating another way of writing about work in American poetry and documentary.  If you’re at all interested in work, documentary, even maybe ethnography(?)/folklife(?) in poetry, this is certainly worth your time.

There’s a lot more to this book that I can’t get to or which I don’t have the tools to talk about–the color photography, primarily. Maybe in a later post.

Thanks to Robb St.L for pointing me to the book.



Filed under: Book Notes

About the Author

Posted by

Joe Hall is the author of five books of poetry, including Someone's Utopia (2018) and Fugue & Strike (forthcoming). His poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Poetry Daily, The Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Postcolonial Studies, Peach Mag,, PEN America Blog, Poetry Northwest, Ethel Zine, Gulf Coast, Best Buds! Collective, and Eighteenth-Century Fiction. He has taught poetry workshops for teachers, teens, and workers through Just Buffalo and the WNYCOSH Worker Center.


  1. Hey Joe–
    I like that you start off by making the distinction between this book and, say, poetry with a capital P. When I saw Nowak give a talk/reading in Baltimore last weekend, he said that he wasn’t sure himself if what he’s doing in this book should be called poetry.

    At any rate–did you notice that the China mine-disaster bits are all in chronological order, and that the only thematic grouping comes in the form of the curricular bits? I’m still trying to make sense of that. I may write me some about the book later this week–either for the online, or I’ll shop it out as a review, it’ll get rejected, and then it’ll go online later.

    • joescirehall

      What’s up, Rob? Ah man, I’m jealous I missed out on his talk. I can see him not wanting to claim that this is POETRY. I’ve been talking to some folk life people here and there, and I think this project falls under what a lot of them have been doing in regard to interpreting source material. They certainly don’t call it poetry. Don’t know what they do call it tho. Always wonder what in those communities is defined as unacceptable interpretation.

      I think you’re right that whatever those two aspects do, it’s not tremendously overt. I did notice that the articles were in chronological order. It seems important, you know, that things are moving forward through time in this book, but that’s as far as I got. As for the curricular stuff….dunno. It made me ask myself really simple things about what I had known about mining before coming to this text. I’ve got some more tentative ideas, but they’re not so convincing. Seems like this is the one bit that helps open up the book….

  2. Pingback: Pigafetta, Poetry, and Painkillers review « Coal Mountain

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s