Writer Diane Gilliam is the 2013 winner of the sixth $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award from A Room of Her Own Foundation (Photo by Bob Weinberg)

Writer Diane Gilliam is the 2013 winner of the $50,000 Gift of Freedom Award from A Room of Her Own Foundation (Photo by Bob Weinberg)

It’s rare for a book of poetry to have the same narrative tension and sense of place as a novel. But it’s a testament to Diane Gilliam’s poetic imagination that she is able to capture the 1920-1921 mine wars of West Virginia with a power, depth, and scope typically reserved for fiction.

These are voices and dialects too rarely heard, and Gilliam’s own history (her parents were part of the post-war Appalachian outmigration, from Mingo County, West Virginia, and Johnson County, Kentucky) makes her the perfect writer for this project. Throughout the 50 persona poems included in Kettle Bottom, Gilliam channels the voices of children, wives, mothers, company owners, miners, immigrants, and newspaper reporters involved in the Battle of Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain, both part of the West Virginia labor battles of 1920 and 1921.

 

Miners paid the owner of this truck 25 cents each for a ride home. There are dollar signs on the windows, perhaps to advertise the service. (Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1938. Courtesy the Library of Congress)

Miners paid the owner of this truck 25 cents each for a ride home. (Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, 1938. Courtesy the Library of Congress)

 

In the introduction to Kettle Bottom, Gilliam sets the stage by describing the conflict between the West Virginia miners and the company owners and operators:

Subsistence wages, the unwillingness of coal operators to slow production for safety reasons, their intransigence with regard to the rights of the miners to organize—these conditions made enemies of the miners and the operators. The situation was aggravated by the organization of life in the camps, which the companies controlled in every respect. Housing was owned by the company; trade was often limited to company-owned stores; the company brought in the doctor, often built the school and brought in the teacher, built the church and supplied the preacher.

But this is simply the backdrop for very real, individual struggles with illness, violence, poverty, and education. The fine poems of Kettle Bottom are one of the best ways to uncover a buried history: through the imagined eyes of those who lived it. We can see the coal dust settling on the clothesline, “like a line of snow on a tree branch.” In the poem “Violet’s Wash,” the narrator struggles to remove the black and gray lines on her husband’s coveralls, the “ankles of his pants…ringed around, / like marks left by shackles.” As Violet watches her husband walk off to the mine, she can’t help but notice the “black, burnt-looking marks / on his shirt over his shoulders, right / where wings would of folded.”