The second edition of my poetry chapbook, The Men Who Work Under The Ground, is now available from the Keep This Bag Away From Children store. You can read my author's note to the chapbook here:
My mother is a coal miner’s daughter.
After returning home from service in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, my grandpa Elmer mined coal for several years in a Peabody mine in Christian County, Illinois. Some of the earliest memories my mother has shared with me are of the coal dust being hosed off of her father before he came inside the house for dinner. I never knew him, myself. Coal miners don’t live to be real old. Elmer died in 1968 (when my uncle was serving in the Vietnam War) from a medical condition that has never been satisfactorily explained to me. My grandfather spent the last years of his life as a state game warden, out in the fresh forest air, but the years dismantling unexploded Nazi bombs and breathing coal dust had taken their toll.
The mines were mostly closed down when I was a kid, but their specter loomed over my yearly summer visits to Christian County. There were stories of relatives who had contracted black lung, of neighbors’ houses that had collapsed into the empty earth beneath them. On the wall of the grocery store, two towns over, there was an old mural honoring the dozens of men who’d been killed in a Christmas Eve cave in. I was shown newspaper clippings about a Progressive Miners of America aligned relative-by-marriage who had been shot dead by a strike-breaking Chicago thug during the union wars. The Progressives had managed to hold out against the Peabody Company (as well as the United Mine Workers of America, after UMWA leader John L. Lewis sold out to Peabody) until the governor sent in the Illinois National Guard to crush them.
When I was living in California a few years ago, I became friends with a troubled man who visited the used bookstore where I worked almost daily to buy used CDs of music from the 50s and 60s. After we’d gotten to know each other bit he told me about his life, particularly his experiences as a tunnel rat during Vietnam. It explained a lot about the way he was. Most of the people who worked in the store with me didn’t like him hanging around, making the other customers uncomfortable, but I told them that until they’d been through what he’d been through, they should leave him the hell alone.
Later that same year, I was reading Roger Crowley’s 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. Crowley’s book gives a fantastically detailed account of the siege and combat preceding the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. After reading through extensive discussions of Sultan Mehmed II’s innovative use of artillery to batter the city walls, I came to a brief passage about fighting that occurred in tunnels underneath the walls.
The passage was revelatory to me. The images in the book connected to the stories I’d heard from my veteran friend in California, which in turn connected to the coal mining stories I’d heard as a kid. I had a sudden and cohesive vision of a web of tunnels, filled with human pain, winding throughout the whole earth and all of history. It stretched back from The New York City subway system, through the colonies of the Spanish, Russian, and Roman Empires, all the way back to ancient Egypt, where Pharaohs forced farmers to dig royal tombs. I suddenly understood what it means in the in the Book of Exodus when it refers to Mitzrayim (מצרים), the narrow place.