Book Review: Mine by Susan Sailer

Mine by Susan Sailer
Finishing Line Press
2012. $14

Reviewed by Liane Ellison Norman

Is it presumptuous for a woman poet, also a retired Professor of Irish and British literature, to speak in the voices of West Virginia miners, their wives and children? Susan Sailer, in her new chapbook, Mine, is anything but presumptuous. She has done voluminous research into mining and particular mine disasters. But it is her respect for the coal miners she imagines and portrays, the difficult, dirty, dangerous work they do to support their families and communities, that is real and goes deep.

Hers are quiet lines that present the staggering cost of prying coal out of West Virginia hills. It takes people to do the prying, the digging, and those in her poems are strong, matter-of-fact, earthy, used to danger and loss, which they suffer keenly.

In “Two Die in Aracoma Alma #1 Mine Fire,” “

All he asked was to see his kids,
to yell I’m home and drop his lunch pail

on the counter. All he asked was to find
the escape route, to grab his buddy, drop

to his knees, crawl toward the wall that cut off
air flow, away from vent fans that fed the fire.

In “Survivor’s Wife” Sailer speaks in the voice of the woman who keeps vigil by the bedside of the one survivor of the Sago Mine explosion of early 2006, the man whose buddies all died, who lies in a medically induced coma. She sits by his bed, remembers their middle-school romance,

She remembers their beginning
in eighth grade: she sat in front of him, liked how he knew
birds’ names, explained algebra better than Miss Vincent.

She shivers, lifts the sweatshirt hood over her head, tugs
the sleeves to her fingertips. “Look, Anna,” he’d said,
walking home from church. He’d seen it through the mist,

sleeping in an oak. “A great horned owl.” She followed
his finger, saw it large and still, tufted ears just visible,
a slightly darker gray than the limb on which it sat.
Sailer gets the richness and ordinariness of the miners’ lives in a multitude of details. These lives are like our lives, but unlike our lives in that the daily work of miners courts death.

The Sago Mine disaster near Buckhannon, WV, trapped 13 miners. “Not One Damn Thing Went Right” details how lightning struck and safety devices failed. The speaker, a miner whose shift was over,

woke right up, drove back to Sago, twenty-five miles
away. Lightning never hits in January here….

Rescuers, off work for New Years Day, take time to assemble and time is a luxury the trapped miners don’t have. “Twelve men dead long before they got there.”

Sailer enters these miners’ lives, their complicated reasons for remaining in the mines, reluctance to report safety problems even though their lives are at risk:

Say we have
a belt fire. Inspector shuts the mine. But the inspector,
he don’t come again for a week to say the mine
can open. So for eight, nine days, no one gets paid.
You take my point? So the foreman talks
with the inspector. They keep the mine open,
keep men working, make repairs. We pay the bills.

Though many of the poems concern the Sago disaster, when seals that ought to have withstood the pressure of an explosion failed, Sailor explores several other mine disasters as well. As she explains in end notes, she draws on “facts about coal mining but create[s] characters based on my imagination of what situations might have been like….” The voices she presents are those of miners—some trapped underground—but she also speaks in the voices of wives and children, colleagues, neighbors. Into these lives Sailer enters with imagination and a fierce truth-telling, reporting voice.

“Firm Pleads Guilty, Faces Massive Fines”, the poem’s title a newspaper headline, details the company’s egregious safety violations in couplets, each beginning “It wasn’t just the….” particular violation, ending, “It was two miners in their prime, dead.” Thud. This is, finally, the cost of mining.

When it’s not underground mining it’s mountain top removal, leaving behind rock and rubble that clog streams with waste, impoundment slurries. But the speaker boasts in “Bottom Line,”

We take off mountaintops—clear-cut
hardwood forests at the peak….

You make a million easy. Small teams,
few accidents, little skill required.
You hear a few complaints, coal soot
sifting under window sills, a few more folks
claiming asthma silicosis. The streams they

say got buried under a million tons of rock
and rubble?

What makes this collection so compelling is Sailer’s understated outrage, acknowledging that the tragedy of mining that proved fatal at the Sago and other mines, belongs to each one of us. Mine records particular places, relationships and disasters. But it’s also mine, belonging to me, someone who relies on what these miners risk everything to dig out.

Sailer writes in many voices—of miners, their wives, sometimes mine operators, neighbors. Though she lives outside their world, she reports with robust respect. In the voices of these people, she finds—and conveys—rich poetry about a world few of us know, but most of us rely on.
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Liane Ellison Norman is the author of Driving Near the Old Federal Arsenal, Finishing Line Press, 2012, Keep, Smoke&Mirrors Press, 2008, The Duration of Grief, Smoke&Mirrors Press, 2005.
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