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five hundred mountains
over 500 mountains in Appalachia have been leveled by
mountaintop removal mining, more than 1,000 miles
of streams poisoned and buried in mine waste
the girl at ten felt more than saw how the
mountains commandeered air and space, pressed
horizons onto car windows, thrust massed color
and form into streams or to the very edge
of thin roads between towns, crazy roads
where the young uncles died on motorcycles.
she fell and fell into mountain opulence, as if
there were no coal mines or company towns
harsh and diminished even to her child’s eyes;
understood beyond language how the mountains
defined everything around them, especially
distant relatives remain, rooted and still in thrall;
the mountains she remembers are magisterial,
numerous as dreams but actual. she has no heart
or vocabulary for the death of mountains,
stumps so defiled that even the ghosts are gone.
poem in my mother’s voice
I hated that backwoods music you brought back
from college, so taken with folk culture and
authenticity. It reeked of dirt and ignorance to me,
like the coal towns where your grandfather was
the company man, and your aunts and I
weren’t allowed to play with the other kids.
We’d hear it coming from unpainted shanties
and patched revival tents; the players usually from
so far back in the hollers they thought coal was
good money, until they got behind at the company store
and never caught up again. We’d see their kids, still
barefoot in late October, picking coal along the tracks.
The worse the town the more likely my father was
all it had of keeping order, or setting broken bones;
Sunday mornings he’d go out to see who’d been
dragged onto our porch after they’d drunk up their pay,
beat each other senseless the night before. Union
wars and clan feuds everywhere, feeding off old grudges
and that god-forsaken music never far away.
Well, you called it music, but it still sounds like misery
to me. Like men gone blind from bad still liquor
or lank-haired women ground down young,
laundry grey before it even came off the line.
Copyright 2011, 2017 Patricia Youngblood. “five hundred mountains” was the winner of the 2011 Frank O’Hara Prize.
West Virginia coal miners, 1940s
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