Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Review of Mark Nowak's Latest Book, Coal Mountain Elementary

277 Miners Die in South Africa Last Year

Five Killed, Five Injured in Coal Mine

Three Die in Kazakhstan Coal Mine Collapse

Those are the last three entries on Poet Mark Nowak’s blog, Coal Mountain. In this blog, which shares the name of his most recent book of poems, Nowak posts stories of the devastating human consequences of the mining industry and its practices, stories not often found in the mainstream media. Nowak’s ongoing work to keep the stories of mining deaths at the forefront of his readers’ minds demonstrates the urgency with which these issues need to be addressed; constantly reminding us that there are lives of real people at stake as well as environmental, economic and political costs to mining.

Nowak translates the resolve of his daily activism on behalf of working people into art in all three of his books of poetry, Shut Up, Shut Down, Revenants, and his most recent book, Coal Mountain Elementary. Deceptively simple, Coal Mountain Elementary combines photographs, newspaper articles, eyewitness testimony, and parts of an elementary school curriculum to relay the human consequences of coal mining. The book reveals how people across the globe are daily dehumanized to support an unsustainable level of consumption. Nowak’s poetry lies in the arrangement of the book as whole – fragments of testimony demand that we witness the devastation of human life in the interest of mining and profit.

The book is divided into three “lessons,” based the curriculum Nowak excerpts from the American Coal Foundation. The first lesson, “Coal Flowers: A Historic Craft,” contrasts the making of a craft that mining families would make when they had “little money/ to buy decorations/ or purchase toys” with Chinese newspaper reports of mining disasters and verbatim testimony from the Sago mining disaster in West Virginia. The brutal truths revealed by this juxtaposition are reinforced by the inclusion of Ian Teh’s photographs of Chinese mines, and Nowak’s own photos of the Sago mine and surrounding area. A photo of a sign reading “Safety Protects People. Quality Protects Jobs” is followed by a Sago mine worker’s description of being caught in the explosion:
“And I thought we was getting covered up with a roof fall at first. I said, oh no, I’m going to get covered up in a mantrip, buried alive here.” The next page indicates that two class periods will be necessary for the making of coal flowers.

In preserving the voices of the miners, Nowak has created a haunting tone to the book. As the narratives progress, we begin to see that these men are talking about ghosts – they talk about the bodies of their friends, relatives, supervisors, and coworkers that they find, and they are guilt-ridden about communications problems that gave false hope to the families of the dead. Their voices are presented next to Chinese newspaper reports of mine disasters, many of which contain the voices of mourners. The second lesson ends with such a voice:

“Tang Xufang, wife of a missing miner, brought his clothes from a dormitory, piled them up and set them on fire, an old Chinese tradition that some believe allows their dead loved ones to use the articles in the afterlife. …After the accident, Tang set off for the mine by train, but couldn’t get past police until Chinese reporters arrived… and demanded they open the gates.”

The way Tang is treated by the police – voiceless, powerless – and the way the press amplifies her voice exemplifies the effect of Coal Mountain Elementary on the reader. Tossed between photographic evidence of working conditions, the voices of the Sago miners, and the newspaper accounts, the children’s curriculum becomes increasingly poignant, as the lessons move from craft, to "mining" a cookie for its chocolate chips to explore costs (labor is not included other than with a price tag), to writing a short story about life in a mining town. This intertextuality is both the art and the power of the book – the story of Sago unfolds in such a way that is impossible to separate from the unrelenting onslaught of the accounts of deaths in Chinese mines. Nowak interweaves the four elements expertly, leaving us no choice but to face the consequences of our consumption and our failing policies.

Buy this book at Coffee House Press.

Katherine Howell is the Blog Goddess and Communications and Development Assistant for Split This Rock Poetry Festival; she lives and writes in Washington, D.C. Other reviews by Katherine can be found here.

No comments: