Coal Creek Litany (and other poems)

Coal Creek Litany

If moonless night, if cuttlefish ink, if the deepest caves of my body, if shadow 
were a stone that burns, if I felt cannel from a drift on Windrock Mountain,
carbon dust pricking the old man’s face blue, soot that stiffens the lacy air sacs 
of diggers who wheeze on clay floors, crusts of pitch on the boy miner’s hand. 
And tamping-bar, pick, canvas cap socketed for a lard oil lamp, am I taking this 
to heart, crank auger, paper cartridge, powder, lighted squib. At the coal plant, 
cyclone, chain feeder, dry air blast. Great eye, look only here. If I could go back 
to the Carter Sisters’ song about a girl with the worried blues, her lover’s leaving 
on the Cannonball, he’s solid gone, she wants to die, the Sisters’ folk music 
record for Columbia in 1953, would I heed the year they pile into Maybelle’s red 
Cadillac that she leadfoots, crisscrossing Tennessee, the year Gilbert Plass warns 
in the hungry fires of industry, man burns coal and oil, belches six billion tons 
of unseen carbon dioxide into the tainted air. This spreading envelope of gas 
serves as a great greenhouse, will raise the Earth’s temperature, his grim report 
for Time magazine. If I could see the convict miner at Mollie Scroggins’ door 
who asks for food, talks to her son, pats his head, convincing her he’s a husband 
with kids of his own. My grandpas shoveled coal, extraction’s in my blood, 
my cells, the tracery of my nerves, the skin of my pinkie I lose to corn gritter,
 punched tin. To hear or not hear cannons the militia fires at the townspeople 
of Coal Creek, the curses of striking miners, the shouts of convicts they freed 
during the uprising in 1893, the year the Fisk Singers ride a dirty Jim Crow car 
with white drunkards and cigar smokers, then disembark in Chicago, walk past 
the Ferris wheel, mannequins of hide dressers and Comanche chiefs, and sing 
sweet chariot, swing low, carry me home at the World’s Fair. Maybe I was kind 
before I knew what kindness was, the coats lined with flannel, did I touch them, 
jean pants and cotton undershirts Mollie and her neighbors set out for the men 
who peel off their striped suits, put on the new, flee over Redoak. Make it clear 
to Jacksboro, Elk Valley before I open my hand, my mouth, there was vein, seam, 
face, squeeze, a ragged cry, if you get there first, cut a hole and pull me through.

Let There Be More Coal

                                           coal doesn’t bust itself  —Jake Skeets


Like a bee making rooms in a dark hive, one man seals another 
length of tunnel with canvas-flaps and boards, pushes back afterdamp, choking gas, brattices his way into the exploded mine—

                                    at the mouth, arc lamps, fan pushing in 
                                    sweet air, makeshift shack, coffee, old mother
                                    tearing at her hair. 

One man finds hunk of burnt miner, mule leg, crumpled trapper boy, handkerchief neatly folded, un-scuffed shoe.


Daniel Detresco
says he was loading his car when he heard 
a banging like 
the roar of 
a hundred
so he led
his father
and his brother through toadhole
small crack somehow 
all three
were saved 


Someone who looks like God’s child, like a blue flame, brings cement and planks to a brattice man, helps a volunteer carry bodies out.

An old miner says, the mine’s so gassy, a mile beyond at Helen’s Run you can cook eggs.

In a church basement in Monongah, a woman with a big-boned face
kneels often at a pine casket and kisses her husband’s bruised lips.


This is another flat-voiced story about a mine disaster where the living cry to their buried ones, and a bent woman reads from her holy book by candlelight, and Isaiah says, he shakes terribly the earth.

After the bad gasses, the bodies, the pieces of bodies are cleared, 
one man takes his cousin to work in the mine, one man takes his son.


  • William Woolfitt’s poems, short stories, and essays have appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, Tin House, The Threepenny Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Spring Up Everlasting (Mercer University Press, 2020).

  • We bring ourselves to what we see in space. In 1895, Percival Lowell popularized the idea of canals on Mars, suggesting the presence of intelligent life. This first image is from his book Mars as the Abode of Life (1895). The second set of images are an imagined map of Mars by Eugene Anoniadi, a Greek-French astronomer who initially supported the canals, but later dismissed the idea in favor of the regions depicted here—Antoniadi’s image is here redrawn by illustrator Lowell Hess in the 1965 book Exploring Mars (via Tom Ruen.) The third image is by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona and was widely thought to look like a bear, though it is in fact a hill with a v-shaped collapse and two craters surrounded by a circular “fracture pattern” in the rock.