This month, National Poetry Month, we encounter a poem both contemporary and historical — “Pink Hollyhocks,” a piece from Diane Gilliam Fisher’s 2004 collection Kettle Bottom that imagines the voices of dozens of residents of Mingo County, a small Appalachian coal mining community, during the West Virginia labor battles of 1920-1921. Fisher brings a poet’s eye for detail and a social historian’s perspective to the first-person stories of her characters, many of whom are women sifting through the dust of tragedy, loss, grief, and the everyday environmental and social hazards of coal mining.
First of all, I love this entire book, and I would encourage everyone to buy it and devour it whole, in all its searing pain. When I wanted to pick one piece to feature for Versing Clio, there wasn’t a clear choice: Fisher covers a lot of ground when it comes to women, health, and medicine in historical perspective: poverty, death (a lot of it), sex, abortion. And so I chose “Pink Hollyhocks,” a poem that ends with an image that has stayed with me since I first encountered it nearly a decade ago.
“Pink Hollyhocks” begins with a women’s mourning ritual: neighboring women gather to prepare the home of the bereaved.
[gblockquote]I turned the quilt over on the bed
when the neighbor women come in
to cover the mirrors and stop the clocks,
hang black crepe over the doorframe.
Onliest pretty thing I had, that quilt.
Not a old feedsack quilt, but a Wreath
of Hollyhocks, cut from Aunt Zelly’s
pattern and done up from a piece
of double-pink Mama brought me
from Kermit, soft Nile green for the leaves,
and new bleached muslin to put it on.
I quilted every inch, stitches no bigger
than a speck of meal. He wasn’t home,
night I finished. I put it on the bed,
took my clothes off, and got under it.
When I heard him in the kitchen,
I called and told him it was done,
and you know what Mama says, Harlan,
you get a wish, first night under a new quilt.
It got real quiet, then here he come
running. I’d put out the light,
he knocked his shin on the cedar chest
trying to get to me on the bed.
The passage pulses with dramatic irony — the reader’s terrible knowledge that this story of pride, of beauty, of conjugal delight and expectation, of hollyhocks (traditionally a symbol of fruitfulness) will end in disaster, in death rather than in conception, in “black crepe over the doorframe.” The speaker describes her handmade, modest, but meticulous quilt, with such detail and care, emphasizing that this was not just any “old feedsack quilt” but really something unusual. This quilt was made of materials from out of town, soft and special and imbued with the traditions and gifts passed down by women in her family.
In fact, the quilt was more than just an object — it was an occasion for celebration, for a wish, for another “first night.” But first nights don’t come easy after long days of domestic work and labor in the coal mines. How do you start with a clean slate — or maintain a clean quilt — when it is nearly impossible to clean the coal dust from your hands?
The speaker’s pride and anticipation only stay with the reader for a moment before the speaker’s recollection skips ahead to the morning after that first (and, we will learn, final) night:
[gblockquote]I was fixing to fold it up, get it
out of my sight, when the siren blowed.
I didn’t go. I already knowed.
The quilt was ruint. Big oily smudges
and coal-black handprints where he hadn’t
finished washing up. I cried and carried on so
when I seen it that morning
he couldn’t look at me before he left,
it made him feel so dirty and bad.[/gblockquote]
This heartbreaking penultimate stanza brings us back to night before, giving us a glimpse into what happened after Harlan “knocked his shin on the cedar chest/ trying to get to me on the bed” in his joyful rush. The speaker jumps forward and backward in time, her recollection both disordered and dazzling. She communicates the acute pain enacted by the “Big oily smudges/ and coal-black handprints where he hadn’t/ finished washing up.” Such pain that she can hardly stand to look at the quilt, and he can hardly stand to look at her, “it made him feel so dirty and bad.” As the speaker swallows this first material loss, she is hit with a blow far more brutal as a she hears a siren and realizes that the mine has exploded, or collapsed, and that Harlan is inside. She can’t bear to leave and confront the carnage. And so she stays, underneath the once-special, then-soiled, now-sacred quilt:
[gblockquote]I turned the quilt over on the bed
to keep them on me,
Harlan’s hands have become a part of the quilt pattern, a literal imprint on the history and memory that will be passed down from generation to generation like “Aunt Zelly’s/ pattern” and the “piece/ of double pink Mama brought me/from Kermit.”
Quilts have historically been overlooked as art, thanks to their domestic, woman-centered existence, straddling the line between high art and folk art, form and function, aesthetic and utilitarian. But I love quilts precisely because we most often don’t simply hang them on walls. Quilts contain social histories that exist off the page, that are consumed by those they comfort and cover. Harlan’s oily coal handprints, a mark of oppressive labor, but also of love, serve as a kind of accidental quilt scrap, a piece from a moment in time that can be passed forward even as he has passed away.
Finally, a note on the historical versus the contemporary in this poem:
It’s easy to think about Fisher’s poem as emblematic of a world nearly a century passed. But how far have we come in the last hundred years? Just last week, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was convicted of conspiring to skirt mine-safety standards, leading to the 2010 explosion of the Upper Big Branch Mine near Montcoal, West Virginia that killed 29 men. Blankenship was sentenced to just one year in prison. Coal mining and its associated health hazards and social inequities are not merely a problem of a bygone era. As long as we live in a world that values profit over human lives, that favors low-cost, short-term fuel over the sustainability of our planet, and that allows coal to persist as an acceptable source of energy, we won’t have come a long way from that morning “when the siren blowed.”
Leah Reis-Dennis is the co-founder of Verse Video Education, a non-profit educational media production company, and a producer for its flagship project, Poetry in America. She blogs about poetry and women's health for Nursing Clio, and has been involved in reproductive justice organizing since 2007, having worked with Planned Parenthood, EMILY's List, Advocates for Youth, and Harvard Students for Choice. Leah received an AB in History and Literature from Harvard University.