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.
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