Review | Kettle Bottom, by Diane Gilliam Fisher

spacer window
   Perugia Press, 2004

In Night Comes to the Cumberlands Harry Caudill writes, “Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies.” The stories of the men who descend into the mines and the women and children who wait for them to emerge at the end of each shift are the subject of another remarkable volume, poet Diane Gilliam Fisher’s second full-length collection, Kettle Bottom. Set in 1920–21, a period of violent unrest known as the West Virginia Mine Wars, the poems in Kettle Bottom combine compelling narratives with the charged, heightened language of lyric poetry. It is an unforgettable combination, one that characterizes the very best contemporary verse. In 2005 Kettle Bottom was selected by Smith College as the summer reading selection for entering students, a singular honor for a volume of poetry.

Kettle Bottom consists of fifty-one poems divided into three sections, narrated by twenty different speakers. These speakers appear, disappear and reemerge throughout the loosely structured narrative, but their distinctive voices and precisely rendered perspectives are consistent and recognizable; there is no confusion for the reader as to who is the speaker in each poem. Kettle Bottom’s human cast includes the miners and their families; the town’s schoolteacher, whose poems are in the form of journal entries; several black miners who are given the most dangerous jobs in the mine, and their families, who are segregated from the white community; men who are brought in as scabs during a strike; a family of Italian immigrants who have been tricked into working and living in coal country; and even the mine owners. This world is compassionately and believably rendered by Fisher, who does not flinch in the face of its historical and human complexity.

“Explosion at Winco No. 9,” the book’s first poem, provides a kind of template for the poems that will follow. An account of the aftermath of a mine disaster, it is told in the voice of Maude Stanley, the young wife of a miner who has just died in the explosion. As the poem begins, she describes the ghastly business that is left to the women after the catastrophe: they must identify the bodies of their husbands, sons, and brothers. The speaker’s tone is flat but chilling as she describes the task:

It is true that it is the men that goes in, but it is us
that carries the mine inside. It is us that listens
to what they are scared of and takes
the weight of it from them, like handing off
a sack of meal. Us that learns by heart
how the teeth set crooked or straight.
Us that picks up the pieces.

Fisher’s strategy—a series of linked monologues—is not without risks, especially given the dramatic stories and historically charged setting of Kettle Bottom. To her credit, Fisher does not lapse into sentimentality nor does she make simple heroes of her narrators. Instead she moves into a realm where story and poetry support one another to achieve genuine narrative momentum and emotional intensity.

With its haunting depiction of the region’s landscape and homely interiors, Kettle Bottom captures with terrific precision a particular place and time, its customs and character:

I turned the quilt over on the bed
when the neighbor women come in
to cover the mirrors and stop the clocks,
hang black crepe over the doorframe.

Onliest pretty thing I had, that quilt.

Not a old feedsack quilt, but a Wreath
of Hollyhocks, cut from Aunt Zelly’s
pattern and done up from a piece
of double pink Mamma brought me
from Kermit, soft Nile green for the leaves,
and new bleached muslin to put it on.
                            (from “Pink Hollyhocks”)

Fisher’s poems deftly move between modest and largely feminine domestic space and the stunning but perilous landscapes of the mountain region and its coalmines.

The poems in Kettle Bottom brim with rich biblical allusions that are employed in surprising and effective ways. In “Abe” the narrator is a miner’s wife who discovers that she is pregnant, and despite her misgivings about the impending strike and the uncertainty of the future, decides to have the child. In considering what she might name the baby, she says,

Henry is happy. He wants
Clairy, after his mama,
if it’s a girl. I said, quick-like,
If it’s a boy, Abraham,
for Daddy—but call him Abe.
I don’t care for Abraham.
I would not want a name
such as would fool a son
up the mountain to his death.
But I can go with Abe—his secret,
real name will be Abednego.
I want my boy such a name
as talks back to kings and walks
right out of a fiery furnace.

With its outright rejection of Abraham’s unflinching obedience to God and its unexpected turn towards a little known Old Testament figure—Abednego, who escapes from the “fiery furnace” of Babylon—the poem tackles a familiar trope in a way that is fresh and moving. It is through gestures like this that Fisher transcends the predictable pieties one might associate with this era and these speakers.

“Raven Light,” the second section of Kettle Bottom, is a single, long poem composed of fifteen unnumbered sections. Its narrator, Nathan Stokes, is a young miner trapped after the ceiling has collapsed in another part of the mine where he is working. The rubble of that collapse stands between him and escape, and he has begun to walk away from the disaster, moving in the opposite direction, deeper into the labyrinth of tunnels and caves that honeycomb the mountain. Stanzas alternate between stream-of-consciousness descriptions of his desperation and the memories of his life before that day, including the story of his father’s death in a mining accident. An image of his father appears early in this dramatic monologue:

. . . Then there he’d be,
stomping coal dust off his boots on the porch,
his face blacked and shiny, like it had soaked
up the dark and give it back alive.
He put me in mind of a raven, those times,
and he was beautiful to my eyes.

The raven is a spirit, leading the speaker deeper and deeper into the mountain, which swallows whole the lives of its miners.

The twenty-five poems in the book’s third and final section, “Winter—Summer,” detail the strike’s violent consequences and unsettling resolution and comprise the narrative climax of Kettle Bottom. Unlike the wrenchingly personal stories of Parts I and II, the poems in Part III are often more overtly political. For example, “Journal of Katherine Terry,” who is the town’s schoolteacher, describes how an innocent gesture by a grieving wife sets in motion a protracted and violent strike:

The lost, they tell me, are almost
never found, their bodies left adrift,
comfortless in the unhallowed mountain
like the sailors lost in the ocean’s deep sift.
She did not speak, only turned the bucket
upside-down—the miners’ way to signal
a strike. Henry Burgess turned his, the gesture
caught, swept through the crowd, and so
it was decided—the men were going out.

This final section includes the poems most deeply informed by a formal historical narrative. It is indignant and spirited in its depiction of how badly the government and coalmine owners mistreated miners and their families. As the striking miners face down the federal government when it enters the dispute on behalf of the mine owners, the individual voices in each poem form a mosaic of sorrow, defiance, and individual resilience. Yet, if there are miscalculations in this excellent book, they happen in this section.

In the poem “Dear Mr. President,” the speaker addresses a distant and cruel politician, Warren Harding, who treats the miners’ strike as a revolt, sending in federal troops and planes loaded with poisonous gas to quell the strike. While this is historically accurate, the narrator’s defiant and astonished letter-poem does not resonate with the emotional acuity of the other poems in this section:

A lot of us down here has been to the War,
and all of us has been in the mines.
You can kill us, Mr. President,
we all know that. But what in the world
makes you think you can scare us?

Still, one can understand Fisher’s decision to write a poem that expresses the indignation and anger the miners must have felt during this period, for the struggles of the labor union movement in the twenties and thirties are well known. This is the difficulty of poetry that is so firmly rooted in narrative and history: can the poet tell what is objectively true using the highly compressed language and oblique strategies of poetry? In Kettle Bottom, Fisher offers an original and compelling exploration of this question.

Kettle Bottom tells the stories of this embattled community with empathy and eloquence. Its narrative coherence, robust language, and emotional integrity invite readers to savor it as both lyric and story; it bears up under repeated readings because of its strength on both of these fronts. This is poetry that offers the consolation of art and imagination to a history marred by violence and tragedy of epic proportion. 

Diane Gilliam Fisher was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio. She received an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Ohio Arts Council in 2003, and Kettle Bottom received the 2004 Intro Award from Perugia Press, a poetry publisher based in Florence, MA. Her first book, One of Everything, was published by the Cleveland Poets Series in 2003. Fisher holds a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literature from The Ohio State University and an MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. She lives in Brimfield, Ohio.