It’s rare for a book of poetry to have the same narrative tension and sense of place as a novel. But it’s a testament to Diane Gilliam’s poetic imagination that she is able to capture the 1920-1921 mine wars of West Virginia with a power, depth, and scope typically reserved for fiction.
These are voices and dialects too rarely heard, and Gilliam’s own history (her parents were part of the post-war Appalachian outmigration, from Mingo County, West Virginia, and Johnson County, Kentucky) makes her the perfect writer for this project. Throughout the 50 persona poems included in Kettle Bottom, Gilliam channels the voices of children, wives, mothers, company owners, miners, immigrants, and newspaper reporters involved in the Battle of Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain, both part of the West Virginia labor battles of 1920 and 1921.
In the introduction to Kettle Bottom, Gilliam sets the stage by describing the conflict between the West Virginia miners and the company owners and operators:
Subsistence wages, the unwillingness of coal operators to slow production for safety reasons, their intransigence with regard to the rights of the miners to organize—these conditions made enemies of the miners and the operators. The situation was aggravated by the organization of life in the camps, which the companies controlled in every respect. Housing was owned by the company; trade was often limited to company-owned stores; the company brought in the doctor, often built the school and brought in the teacher, built the church and supplied the preacher.
But this is simply the backdrop for very real, individual struggles with illness, violence, poverty, and education. The fine poems of Kettle Bottom are one of the best ways to uncover a buried history: through the imagined eyes of those who lived it. We can see the coal dust settling on the clothesline, “like a line of snow on a tree branch.” In the poem “Violet’s Wash,” the narrator struggles to remove the black and gray lines on her husband’s coveralls, the “ankles of his pants…ringed around, / like marks left by shackles.” As Violet watches her husband walk off to the mine, she can’t help but notice the “black, burnt-looking marks / on his shirt over his shoulders, right / where wings would of folded.”
Amid the poverty and violence, schoolchildren struggle to understand their book report assignments and the real meaning of history. “History is the facts, and true, whereas stories is what folks make up,” writes 8th grader Pearlie Webb in her assignment for her teacher, Miss Terry:
Well, just last month, Ory Price died trying to have a baby…This was a week or so after Matewan, it was Marshall Law and the Baldwin-Felts wouldn’t let nobody in nor out of the camp. Not even the granny woman come to help Ory, though they must of could heard her screaming for Jesus all the way down the road…Doctor come to write up the Death Certificate, for Cause of Death he put Childbirth, which is a fact, Miss Terry, but it sure ain’t got nothing to do with the truth.”
Death, soot, cinders, and the threat of being buried alive are everyday realities in the mine towns of West Virginia. But the mine’s owner watches the serpentine “Carbide lamps winding / their way to the shift house” on the road, and thinks they’re beautiful, “like a Chinese dragon, some ancient / fire-breathing creature guarding / the treasure in the mountain.”
In the poem, “L’Inglese,” we learn that a “kettle bottom” is a petrified tree trunk weighing 200-300 pounds, buried in the mountain. It can drop through a mine roof and kill a man. The mining company blames many miners’ deaths on “kettle bottoms,” but the truth is obvious: there are no holes punched through to the sky from kettle bottoms—only “a mountain on your back” and unsafe work conditions.
This year, Diane Gilliam was the recipient of the $50,000 Gift of Freedom award from A Room of Her Own Foundation. The organization was founded by Darlene Chandler Bassett and ex-nun and writer Mary Johnson (who I interviewed here). During a retreat at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch, Darlene offered to fund Mary’s pursuit of a fine arts degree, if Mary would help her create a template for an organization that would offer other women the privacy, finances, and creative support to pursue their work. A Room of Her Own Foundation was born.
“I decided I would finance Mary’s art, and if I could do it for her, we could do it for other women,” Chandler Bassett explains. This education was critical to Johnson, who had just left 20 years of service as a nun with Mother Teresa. Together Darlene and Mary developed a model for a foundation based on Virginia Woolf’s idea that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write.”
Gilliam says that the Gift of Freedom is ”actual, practical help for women who need to do their work in a world that often doesn’t know how much it needs that work.” The grant will allow her to complete her latest writing project, The Blackbirds Too.
“When I did an interview with Darlene Bassett Chandler as part of the selection process for the Gift,” Gilliam explained to me via email, “she quoted to me a few lines from a poem I’d submitted, titled ‘Girl’—’We would give her / another story if we could, now we are grown women in a car / on our way to somewhere else.’ The women of AROHO and each and every donor to the Gift of Freedom have given me a different story, an almost miraculous two years to live my writing life full-time. I’m so proud to be part of the AROHO story—this is what happens when women put their heads and hearts together to support our work in the world.”
If Kettle Bottom is any indication, we can expect more fine writing from Diane Gilliam in the months and years ahead.
Here are six poems from the collection to kick off your Sunday…
At home, in Carrara, Papa he is mastro
di tagliapietra, master stonecutter, maker
of beautiful buildings and bridges. Rich men
they knock on our door, asking licenza
to enter our house, to talk with Papa
about a portico, or a piazza.
Papa he loves the stone.
He takes me to see the David, for what
is Michelangelo, he tells me, if not a stonecutter.
La differenza, he says, is that when Papa
sees a stone he sees inside it the face
of a beautiful building. Michelangelo
he sees a beautiful man.
Then he cuts away from the stone
everything that is not David.
Papa wants to come here because America
is a land of beautiful buildings still
hiding in their stones. He believes
he can uncover those buildings,
scoprire la belleza nascosta nella pietra.
When we arrive, he tells the men
with the books — roccia, pietra — and he makes
the motion of hitting the stone. They point
to a train. When the train stops, they give Papa
not a chisel, but a shovel. He shakes his head, no,
no, no — but already we owe for the train.
Papa tries to pay, he goes every day
into the mountain, into the stone. It seals
him in. Sealed in, the men from the company
they tell Mamma the roof it fell, they are sorry.
No survivors, too dangerous to try to bring
the bodies out. The rich men here, they see nothing
in the stone but money. Non c’e nessuno che vede
il mio papa e gli altri nella pietra. No Michelangelo
here to cut the stone away from the beautiful men.
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 Mama brought me
from Kermit, soft Nile green for the leaves,
and new bleached muslin to put it on.
I quilted every inch, stitches no bigger
than a speck of meal. He wasn’t home,
night I finished. I put it on the bed,
took my clothes off, and got under it.
When I heard him in the kitchen,
I called and told him it was done,
And you know what Mama says, Harlan,
you get a wish, first night under a new quilt.
It got real quiet, then here he come
running. I’d put out the light,
he knocked his shin on the cedar chest
trying to get to me on the bed.
I was fixing to fold it up, get it
out of my sight, when the siren blowed.
I didn’t go. I already knowed.
The quilt was ruint . Big oily smudges
and coal-black handprints where he hadn’t
finished washing up. I cried and carried on so
when I seen it that morning
he couldn’t look at me before he left,
it made him feel so dirty and bad.
I turned the quilt over on the bed
to keep them on me,
Lick Creek Tent Colony
Whoever it was took a shot at Don Chafin
needs took up the hill and the tar beat out of him.
I don’t care if Don Chafin is Satan walking
the earth, he is the sheriff and you can’t shoot
at the law and not bring them down on your head.
We got babies down here. We ain’t got no houses,
but we got babies. When this union business
started up, first thing the Company did
was turn us out — chester drawers and marriage
beds and womenfolk in the family way
standing out in the road. Men promised
it’d be over by spring. Now here we are,
union tents the only thing keeping
evening damp off these babies’ faces .
Last night Baldwin-Felts and sheriff’s deputies
rode through, shooting in the air and slashing
tents with bayonets , so now we ain’ t even got that.
Them fool men got theirselves so riled
they can’t think of nothing but bringing
Don Chafin’s head home on a platter.
They ought to turn around and take a good look
at the morning after — babies’ heads everywhere,
popping up through the holes in the tents.
My Dearest Hazel
Well, honey, I had not thought of Annabelle
for years. Was you turning seven, or eight,
when Momma made her? I remember Momma
traipsing all the way over to Delsey Salyer’s
to trade a bit of green thread for blue
so’s Annabelle’s eyes’d be same as yours.
And we unravelled Daddy’s yellow neck scarf
Momma had knit him ‘fore they was married
to make her hair. Hazel, honey, how I remember it is,
she got left under the porch one night that spring
it rained so bad and brung all them mudslides
and copperheads down the hill. Daddy forbid us
to go in under there looking for her. We pried up
a loose board on the porch, got her with Daddy’s
fishing pole, but she was ruint, soaked through with mud.
Listen, Hazel, what I remember is, it was me
left Annabelle under the porch. You hear me, honey?
Wasn’t nothing you could of done.
I told that doctor flat out
what it was. He looks me right
in my face, says, Mrs. Chapman,
you can worry a man sick, now,
and John has got to work.
You let me do the doctoring here,
unless you got a sheepskin
somewhere I don’t know about.
All I could think was that old
story about a wolf in sheep’s
clothing. I said, Sheepskin?
And he points to a picture frame
propped on his desk, diploma
wrote in Latin, from some college
in Virginia. I said, No. doctor,
I got nothing like that.
I did not hold John’s hands,
speckled with coal tattoos,
out to the doctor, did not say
Read this here, doctor, how easy
the dust works in under his skin.
I did not say, You come home
with us. Read his handkerchiefs,
read my pillowslips, grayed
with dust, sprayed with coal-black
flecks of coughed-up muck. I did
not tell him my learning come nights,
from the ragged, rocky-chested racket
of my daddy’s cough and the only
Latin we got to show for it
is on his stone.
No. What I know is not wrote
on sheepskin, doctor, I told him.
I said, What I know
is wrote on the wall.
Daddy has scolded me for listening
to him and Uncle Ted, for there is things,
he told me, little girls aint meant
to understand. Nor go around repeating —
and here is where he ducked his chin
and looked at me out from under his
eyebrows, so I’d know not to tell
how they are waiting for the dogwood
to bloom in spring, so they can hide
in the flowers and greening, and pick
off scabs, shooting down the hillside.
A man, Daddy says, has got to make a stand
and say what side he’s on. And we aint
on the side of no scabs, are we Edith Mae?
No, Daddy, we aint, I told him true.
But I will tell you, Dear Diary, I believe
them dogwoods been hurt enough — being used
for the cross, and now for this. Them trees
aint asked to be on nobody’s side.
And I am on the side of the trees.
About Diane Gilliam
Diane Gilliam is the winner of the 2013 $50,000 Gift of Freedom from the A Room of Her Own Foundation. She lives in Akron, Ohio, where she works as a poet and quilter. She was born and grew up in Columbus, Ohio, but her parents were part of the post-war Appalachian outmigration, from Mingo County West Virginia and Johnson County Kentucky. She has a PhD in Romance Languages and Literatures from Ohio State and an MFA from Warren Wilson.
Gilliam’s first book, One of Everything tells the stories of four generations of women in her family, beginning on Stepp Mountain in eastern Kentucky and ending in a shopping mall in Akron. Her second book, Kettle Bottom, is written in the voices of people living in the coal camps at the time of the 1920-21 West Virginia Mine Wars. Kettle Bottom has won several prizes, including a Pushcart Prize and the Ohioana Library Association Book of the Year in Poetry. Gilliam also won the the 2008 Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing.
Her most recent work follows her interest in Jungian psychology. The new poems interact with myth, fairy tales, and other received stories to see how they can both hurt and help as we become who we mean to be.
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All poems © Diane Gilliam. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in Kettle Bottom (Perugia Press, 2004) and were reprinted with express permission from the author.