Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Kettle Bottom by Diane Gilliam Fisher

The UPS man has just wheeled away from the house and left a package from Amazon behind. What's inside?

Kettle Bottom (2004, Perugia Press) a book of incredibly powerful poetry by Appalachian writer Diane Gilliam Fisher.

A 'kettle bottom' has nothing to do with the base of soup pans. It is a reference to a kind of petrified wood that can come through the roof of a coal mine shaft, killing everyone beneath it with the force of its descent. The title has a metaphorical power, intended to point to the chance nature of mining work, and even, of life. One never knows if one is standing under a kettle bottom or if it is about to descend. These are situations based on chance, and perhaps luck.

Not only is this book timely, given the most recent and catastrophic disaster in Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, which claimed the lives of 29 men, it is also timeless. Here, in her rich monologues, Fisher reveals the psychology of conflict and loss. Moreover, her poems, told largely in the voices of miner's wives and children, deal with the impact of mining life and the 1920-21 West Virginia mining wars on the families themselves.

I first heard Fisher's poems a week ago on West Virginia Public Radio, as Fisher has created an audio component. She is not the one to read them, however. It is the wives and children of former miners, whose voices often crack with emotions as they read. Listen to the poems here. They will make you cry.

This particular poem gave me goosebumps:

Explosion at Winco No. 9
Delsey Salyer knowed Tom Junior by his toes,
which his steel-toed boots had kept the fire off of.
Betty Rose seen a piece of Willy’s ear, the little
notched part where a hound had bit him
when he was a young’un, playing at eating its food.

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 all they are scared of and takes
the weight of it from them, like handing off
a sack of meal. Us that learns by heart
birthmarks, scars, bends of fingers,
how the teeth set crooked or straight.
Us that picks up the pieces.

I didn’t have
nothing to patch with but my old blue dress,
and Ted didn’t want flowered goods
on his shirt. I told him, It’s just under your arm,
Ted, it ain’t going to show.

They brung out bodies,
you couldn’t tell. I seen a piece of my old blue dress
on one of them bodies, blacked with smoke,
but I could tell it was my patch, up under the arm.
When the man writing in the big black book
come around asking about identifying marks,
I said, blue dress. I told him, Maude Stanley.


  1. Thank you for this review of KETTLE BOTTOM and for the audio link.

    1. Thank *you*, Doris, for your comment! This is one of my favorite books. It's so powerful.