Many years ago I wrote a poem titled “Coal,” the first of several born of my experiences working the midnight shift above an underground coal mine in southern Illinois. For seventeen years I tolerated the chronic weariness of an unnatural work schedule, the repetition of inputting transcendental ciphers and weekly tonnages into an ancient computer that stalled as stubbornly as one of the mules pulling his quota of coal up the rails decades ago. The pay was that good.
And yet there was something else, something in the strangeness of the hours, that alien landscape of endless conveyor belts snaking to the coal preparation plant where giant shakers rumbled and hoppers belched black cataracts into rusted boxcars, the unworldliness of 300 feet below in a honeycombed earth where, to quote that early poem, “the beauty of the ninety degree crosscut/and the truth of the articulating crawler are all that really matter.”
It was this Keatsian blending of the natural and supernatural that forced me to write down my nightly observations of what I believed and still believe to be a unique, almost blessed, opportunity. I imagined myself in the place of the miners, men who knew the feeling of loneliness in the impenetrable darkness, the dangers of three-ton slabs of limestone and a machine nicknamed “The Ripper,” who heard the voice of poetry but could never put it into words. They were the sons and grandsons of miners, and they too appeared to know how fortunate they were to share something far beyond the ordinary.
I hope that these poems, complemented by Doc Horrell’s photography, may give one an echo of that voice I heard during those long night shifts, as I tried to mine words hard as coal.