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Pearlie Tells What Happened at School
Miss Terry has figured since we are living
in a coal camp, we ought to know geology,
which is learning about rocks. Every day
we got to bring in a different rock
and say what it is. Even our spelling words
is rock words, like sediment and petrified.
Yesterday, Miss Terry says, Who can use
“petrified” in a sentence? And Walter Coyle
raises his hand, which, he don’t never
say nothing. He’s a little touched, Walter is,
ever since his uncle Joe - he was the laughingest,
sparkliest-eyed man you ever seen - ever since Joe
got sealed in at Layland and they ain’t never
gonna know if he got burnt up or gassed
or just plain buried. So Walter says,
and he don’t never look up from his desk,
he says, Miss Terry, can a person get petrified?
Miss Terry thinks he is sassing her, ‘cause she
don’t know about Joe Coyle, and about
how Walter don’t ever sleep no more
nor hardly eat enough to keep
a bird alive, as his mama says.
Miss Terry sends him to the cloak room
but Walter, he just walks on out. I reckoned
that was the last we’d see of Walter.
He come back this morning, though, pockets
filled with rocks, and with a poke full of rocks.
Spreads them all out on Miss Terry’s desk
‘fore she even asks. Well, alright, she says,
suppose you can tell us what these are.
Walter stirs the rocks around a bit, so gentle,
picks up a flat, roundish one and lays it
agin his cheek. This here, he says,
is the hand.
You can’t have nothing clean.
I scrubbed like a crazy woman
at Isom’s clothes that first week
and here they come off the line, little black stripes wherever I’d pinned them up
or hung them over — coal dust settles on the clothesline, piles up
like a line of snow on a tree branch. After that, I wiped down the clothesline every time, but no matter, you can’t
get it all off. His coveralls is stripy with black and gray lines,
ankles of his pants is ringed around, like marks left by shackles.
I thought I’d die that first week
when I seen him walk off to the mine, black, burnt-looking marks
on his shirt over his shoulders, right where wings would of folded.
-from Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher
Journal of Catherine Terry
5 December 1920
Robert Davis’s father and two brothers
are dead and Nathan Stokes is missing.
When they told Mrs. Davis, she slid down
on herself like melting wax on a candle
then shook off the women who rushed
to hold her. She turned—even the air
around her seemed bruised—walked through
the crowd to the wall of fallen rock
blocking the drift mouth
and pressed her ear against it.
Women came and led her off.
A dirty arm
on the other side thrust a dinner bucket
through a small opening the men had made
in the rocks. It was passed, with words,
till it came to Gertie Stokes’s hand.
The lost, they tell me, are almost
never found, their bodies left adrift,
comfortless in the unhallowed mountain
like sailors lost in the ocean’s deep sift.
She did not speak, only turned the bucket
upside-down—the miners’ way to signal
strike. Henry Burgess turned his, the gesture
caught, swept through the crowd, and so
it was decided—the men were going out.
—Diane Gilliam Fisher
This poem is from Diane Gilliam Fisher’s collection Kettle Bottom, which is a collection of persona poems based around the mine wars in West Virginia in 1920 and 1921. I am not going to write much about the poetic elements of this poem because I’m presenting a paper on the collection at a conference later this week, but I wanted to share this because it shows how one small act of defiance can trigger tremendous action. Of course, you’ll have to read about what happens after “the men were going out” and about Gertie Stokes’s true intentions in the collection. I highly recommend it.