Tuesday, October 18, 2011

BLACK LUNG, by R. T. Smith

The legacy of coal is one of environmental devastation and human exploitation.  The poem below, by my friend R. T. Smith, author of numerous books of poetry and fiction, expresses that reality by focusing on the Appalachian singer and song-writer Hazel Dickens.  Rod's poem gives voice to the grief and pain that has come from the mines and the blight of mountain-top removal.  In the few days before Western Carolina University's ROOTED IN THE MOUNTAINS conference begins, I can think of no more powerful voice than this to sound the warning about the threats to the mountains we love.  

Black lung 
R. T. Smith 

When Hazel Dickens watched her brother die 
of the miner’s curse, the room shook with weeping, 
and she thought, So much cold sweat, so many tears, 
the womenfolk might’s well be mining salt. 

As a child singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” 
in the shadowed kitchen of a sharecropper’s shack, 
she knew even hymns burned their truest 
when you could hear keening beneath the praise. 

Singing for the rights of ridgers and diggers, 
she kept that note close, a ruined lung’s gasp. 
Hazel sang lovelorn, ever angry for the hungry. 
She learned Maybelle’s lick to teach the guitar 

to mourn. In her heart she found a sound 
with the beauty of redbuds stained dark 
as a seam of blood coal—pick and drill, carbide 
light, blind mules and men’s skin shiny 

as a wet crow’s feather. She gave it throat 
and breath, the lyrics edged across her teeth, 
and would not be muzzled for the sake of tact 
or cash. The maverick activist stood stern 

in the city, her flowery skirt and blouse 
plain that autumn day at the Folklife Fest. 
Aiming for relief, she unleashed nervy words, 
the feel of scars, dust deadly as pepper, 

grief as wives turn widows and daughters 
sob, the greed of companies restless to rob. 
“Black lung, black lung” she wailed, “your hand’s 
icy cold, as you reach for my life and you torture

my soul.”  Could she picture poor Thurman 
frozen in his coffin? She felt a mortal chill 
riddle her bones. Even the hecklers hushed 
when she finished with: “a good man is gone.” 

In the bowels of the mountain, maybe a calm 
touched the seam and the air felt sweet 
and clean, but soon on hogback ridges 
the riven earth was night-struck again, and men 

underground breathed their last. Now we pray 
whatever snow God allows will never halt 
her hard song amid the tears and sweat. 
Can we get an amen here before this whole 

suffering country is sown with salt?



  1. Thank you so much for bringing us this stunning, searing poem, Kay! It reads as though written by a fury. "In the bowels of the mountain"...dust deadly as pepper"--the former seizes my very gut and the latter burns my own lungs.

  2. Beautiful poem and very powerful. Thank you for the post.

  3. Should be emblazoned somewhere. A marvelous emblem of the heedlessness of man with profit in mind and no thought (or imagination) for the consequences.

  4. Thank you Susie and Joan. I agree, this should be emblazoned somewhere. And Diann, thanks for dropping by. You'll have to come back and sit a spell.