I Am Big. It's the Pictures That Got Small

for those wonderful people out there in the dark

14 September 2006

Poetry Thursday: Somebody Else

This week's Poetry Thursday assignment is "to slip on someone else's shoes for a while and write some poetry." I love persona poems, and so I want to share an old one from my first book, The Sunshine Mine Disaster, which is mostly told from the perspective of a miner trapped some 5,000 feet beneath the surface during the worst mining disaster in Idaho's history. 91 miners perished, all due to a fire and the subsequent carbon monoxide poisoning. Two miners, however, survived, after a week underground.

This disaster took place in 1971, and it was an event that brought national attention to my state--quite a rarity, as Idaho is very much off the grid. I was 12 at the time of the disaster, and I got to know two girls who were orphaned by their father's death (the location of the mine is in northern Idaho, over 300 miles from where I lived). And it was a subject matter that stayed with me through a truly botched attempt at writing a sequence in the early 80s, and I struggled through it into the early 90s. It was like writing a novel more than a set of individual poems.

The main character in the book is a fictional miner, a composite really, named Dan Taylor. He's in his early 20s, with a newborn child, well read if not well educated, with no options available but to work in the mines, where one could make a very decent living then. Oh, and he's a devout Catholic. He's someone I understood mostly (I had in mind, at least partly, a friend from Lewiston who did not go to college), but not entirely, which was the great challenge for me.

I never stepped foot in a silver mine, let alone work in one, and writing the book meant conducting interviews with survivors and undertaking significant research--I make a point of this because a reviewer on Amazon says the book is inherently inadequate because it's not nonfiction, just poetry, which meant the book could not be credible, serious, or significant. Obviously he did not read the book. Obviously he is afraid of poetry. His/her loss.

But getting into Dan Taylor's perspective was such an imaginative leap for me, a liberating one, that has made me a more supple and playful and serious writer. About this poem, it closes the book. Some words you'll need to know: stope is a miner's immediate workstation (usually at the rock face where someone drills holes for dynamite, or who shovels out the muck, the debris, after the dynamite has been set off); drift is a tunnel; and censer, of course, is the small incense burning ball that is used in high church ceremonies. The Sunshine Mine, by the way, was the largest silver mine in the country, having some 110 miles of tunnels, and going to depths of greater than 7200 feet. And of the poem's title, it obviously references the motto stamped on American coins--to me, a very strange branding of money and god--but it also goes to Dan's own spiritual crisis.

The situation in the book at this time is that Dan has been underground for almost a week, and he's at the very end of his rope (I don't imagine him surviving). He's had to survive by eating the remnants of food in his buddies' lunch pails, and then endure the depths, the heat (the temperature is over 100 degrees at that depth), and the distances he must imagine. I see this last poem as a kind of reconciliation, which would not be possible but through Dan's eyes and voice.


Under God

God so temper me.
When I think ascension,
it is the hurl of the icy body,
perfected, to heaven.
But one mile down, among
the rock and rigor-mortised,
it is hard to remember God's
face in the clouds, no more
than the sleight of wind
effacing the under-skiff,
pulling down, and I would
see nothing but the lactating
teats of cows. But how could
a ten-year-old boy submit
such a confession to the other
kids? And so with me, the clouds
were a U-boat, something
my father had fought, and I
could recall each part
from my father's plastic model
in the bottle, especially the dorsal
hull he let me fit, and he steadying
my hand as I held the forceps,
giving the submarine its outer
form. That night I practiced
my signature, playing upon
the variations of D and T,
and nothing worked. I
remember now that extraction
really has to do with something else,
something religious, but that
is gone, too. So much muck. So
much grounding. God, so
temper me. Perhaps extraction
begins with Jonah,
or what father called the sign
of Jonah, speaking out in the whale's
great chambering, underwater, deeper
in it than I, and the voice rang out
of the belly, spilling diaphanous
into water, rising to the surface,
into the air. He could hear it,
my father said, as his PT boat
sounded above the ocean. It's hard
not to think of the German sailors,
those whose submarine stalled
in the depth-charge's shock. What
sounding. What sounding.
And no sign of rescue for six
days. It would be easier, cleaner,
to make my own coffin, to return
down the drift to my station
and slide into the stope, take
a breath. It would be easy, if not
for the faces, none of them
angelic. I have come to think
of Christ, although disillusion
awaits all adoration. Even
so, I am given to beseeching
helpless saviors, the infant
Christ, the crucified Christ. It is
the Ascension I cannot grasp.
There is too much earth. My own child,
with his ten months a wounded vein
in me, may be sleeping above me, and I
still tremble to cover him
although I know he will not wake
by a father's disturbance. I come
to kiss the face of the rock.
It is the face of the Christ.
No.
It is my father's face.
No.
And I will not look again,
for I do not want that old retrieval,
but my family: my wife, my child,
my dread, my own, hearing those calls
home, heeding them in heart, and
oh, how nigh is death, and how nigh
are the ringing censers' sounding
of what might be yesterday,
or tomorrow.

17 Comments:

At 10:39 AM, Blogger wendylou who? said...

Thereis much to like in this poem..butwhat strikes deepest for me is the line

God so temper me.

I believe we temper eachother day by day..steel upon steel..soul apon soul. Some break. Some yield and some transform into something they could not have possibly been with out the repeated strikes.

I love this thought, swimming in and out of his head...Challenging him to keep sane.

My thought, that swims...Is
Satan Get Behind Me.

I loved this, Jim...oh, to be inside your head....

Wendy,
quiet about a lot of things.blogspot

 
At 1:40 PM, Blogger jim said...

My own little head is so awfully chaotic, Wendy, but ever now and then something clean and sure plays itself out. Thank you!

 
At 4:43 PM, Blogger Verity said...

This is so moving, so well written that I'm embarrassed at my inability to come up with the words to tell you how much I loved it. As for that Amazon reviewer, forget him! How can you trust someone who can't see how much truth and life there is in poetry, as you consistently demonstrate for us.

 
At 4:49 PM, Blogger Catherine said...

I loved this poem - I have a similar mine story in my family history, a disaster in a coal mine in Scotland where some of my grandmother's relatives were still living (whe had a cousin whose husband was killed). I've never felt able to do justice to the story, but you have succeeded magnificently.

 
At 11:36 PM, Blogger in the loop said...

Wow. This is brilliant. I feel empty of words. What struck me most:

"Even
so, I am given to beseeching
helpless saviors, the infant
Christ, the crucified Christ. It is
the Ascension I cannot grasp.
There is too much earth. My own child,
with his ten months a wounded vein
in me, may be sleeping above me, and I
still tremble to cover him
although I know he will not wake
by a father's disturbance."

 
At 12:03 AM, Blogger Jen Rouse said...

An amazing poem. I admire your taking ambition in taking on such a difficult topic.

 
At 12:16 AM, Blogger BessieSnickers said...

This is a beautiful poem. I admire the crafting of it. It seems like it would be such a satisfying thing to delve deeply (pun unintended) into a subject, and mix it with your depth of knowledge of other subjects and find the poetry in it.

The comparison to the belly of the whale and the submarine is especially compelling. I can't recall much of the Jonah story, but they certainly evoke the anguish of men evaluating live in the face of death.

Wow. I'm blown away.

 
At 2:51 AM, Blogger bb said...

What a magnificent ending to your collection this muct be!

but my absolute favourite part is that cheeky rhyme:

"God's
face in the clouds...
the lactating
teats of cows."

Profound but never without its humour!

 
At 1:40 PM, Blogger Tammy said...

This was riveting! It felt like when I'm passing an accident and I'm compelled to look. I'm very claustrophobic.

" I come
to kiss the face of the rock.
It is the face of the Christ."

 
At 3:50 PM, Blogger Pauline said...

"and oh, how nigh is death, and how nigh
are the ringing censers' sounding
of what might be yesterday,
or tomorrow."

This is so well drawn that it took my breath away. It wasn't hard to identify with the miner trapped in the deep.

 
At 4:56 PM, Blogger Natalie said...

Is it me or does this poem crescendo towards the end? Does his family call his heart more fervently than Christ in the end? As this man feels as if death his approaching him it almost becomes unbearably sad... The claustrophobia and frustration which has built (and which seems to be reflected by the structure of this poem - without break)becomes something much more open at the end - freed even. It's really quite moving.

 
At 6:04 PM, Anonymous January said...

Hmmm. No words, but I'm left with the feeling that I should buy your other two books in additon to "Pictures." And, I'm holding onto the slim hope that your plans will change and I'll see you at Dodge.

My favorite lines:

"Perhaps extraction
begins with Jonah,
or what father called the sign
of Jonah, speaking out in the whale's
great chambering, underwater, deeper
in it than I, and the voice rang out
of the belly, spilling diaphanous
into water, rising to the surface,
into the air."

Brilliant!

 
At 6:38 PM, Anonymous chiefbiscuit said...

I like your style of writing, its wide sweep. Very powerful stuff.

 
At 8:57 PM, Blogger jim said...

Oh January, you temptress, you!

But definitely in 2008, if not before. You know how small the poetry world can be.

And Natalie, I so much appreciate what you see there. As with all the other humbling appreciations.

I'm just glad that poetry can take us to such places, depths, and perspectives.

 
At 9:54 PM, Blogger twitches said...

This is truly (pun?) breathtaking. I love persona poems, too, and the idea of writing a collection of these is really brilliant.

 
At 2:27 PM, Blogger Lane Savant said...

From my world of vague metaphor, I am awakened to the power of clear and precise writing.

 
At 6:36 AM, Blogger swissmiss said...

This is why I did not attempt the persona assignment - this is such an interesting poem, the whole collection must be wonderful. I particularly like the use of a/Ascention. I'm constantly amazed at what "just" poetry can do and say (stupid Amazon reviewer!).

 

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