‘Coal Mountain Elementary’
Mark Nowak, “Coal Mountain Elementary”
Publisher: Coffee House Press
2009, 181 pages, paperback, $20
Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary is a work that defies genre. Developed through a series of four distinct narratives, these accounts include news sources that document numerous coal mining accidents in China, photographs by Nowak and Ian Teh, and quotations from the American Coal Foundation’s “Lesson Plans”—a lengthy transcript of testimony housed at the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health and Safety website. Each chapter of Cold Mountain Elementary begins with a “Lesson Plan” that provides an overview of what the reader is supposed to learn about coal, coal mining, and the history of the industry. Ultimately, the book’s “lessons” bring the reader closer to what it means to be a coal miner, or to be married to a coal miner, or to have family or friends who are coal miners. By interweaving the written and the visual, Nowak helps recreate a subterranean workplace where humans are exposed to toxic chemicals and unexpected explosions, in effect inviting readers to question what it means to face the tragic, but all too common, loss of life in the coal mining industry.
The first time I approached this book, I had to sort through my emotions as I read news account after news account of miners who have died in explosions, collapses, and floods. I could not help but feel desensitized to the stories because of the impossibility of grasping the depth of loss, corruption, and fear that hundreds of thousands of miners must contend with daily. The testimonies from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health and Safety website present, perhaps, the most desensitizing narrative of Coal Mountain Elementary. Nowak presents the testimonies in a linear narrative that begins with the first sounds of an explosion and culminates in an unnerving description of the miners in the tunnels who have either asphyxiated or have bled to death.
Most readers, myself included, have no idea how to process these tragedies. The narrative’s desensitized tone allows Nowak to project his strongest argument because the book’s matter-of-fact style reflects what the world hears about the accounts of mining disasters on the news. When the testimony refers to the dead men in the West Virginia coal mines as “items,” we realize the full extent of the desensitization and destruction inherent within the coal mining industry. These narratives remind us that these men and, in some instances, women, are perceived as expendable. I can’t help but feel sickened by these reminders, but the “truth,” as Nowak proves in this book, is always rewritten by those in power.
Caitlin McCrory, Poetry Editor