A Selection of Poems

by Joseph Bathanti Issue: 2022 Special Issue on Identity

Postdiluvian: Mingo County, West Virginia

The day dawns repentant, 
sky blue. Union Mission 

hauls in food and blankets, toys.
Pigeon Creek, now slaked, 

plumb in its banks, yet still flexing 
at its gouged shoulders, is sick 

green-brown in slabs of sunlight – 
dull as a gorged serpent.

It’s had too much to drown –
more mine-rain runoff

than Mingo tribal land would suffer.
Its breach was obscene – 

massing diluvia bent on blood feud.
Sycamores snapped in tandem.

Roil stormed the house, 
cleaved its seams and sockets, 

white shakes skived in coils from its face –
the Pigeon in the children’s room, 

counterpanes of water 
draping spinet and chifferobe.

The roof caved the porch.
The saltbox jackknifed, 

joists gone for tinder. A good house – 
built righteously with gravity 

and optimism, signed verily 
in sacrifice and prophecy –

it swamped, then sundered, vitals bared,
the yard washed off to Pike County

through the Tug River Valley. 
The bones of the Hatfields and McCoys 

bristle in beds of coal silt. 
Nary a crow circles.


 

Sentences


It is true that it is the men that goes in, but is us
that carries the mine inside.

-Diane Gilliam Fisher, “Explosion at Winco No. 9” (from Kettle Bottom)

(for Ernest Hill & Jimmie Bell)

The work of rescue 
through Cumberland granite
favors piety, 
the liturgy 
of pump and drill, 
dirge and hymn, 
the feudal knell 
of blade on stone 
nine days without respite –
the tumult of hearts 
dredging hope 
overlong.

The women are statues,
mouths set in chiseled lines, 
gaunt dresses; 
the querulous, yearning 
faces of their children, 
baby birds, 
whose portion 
lay swaddled 
in the ebon seam. 

At the shaft house, 
they queue
awaiting the cage – 
finally: blue lips, 
black fingers,
nine days bearded,
notes pinned to their blouses.

These were not men beholden 
to words on a page:
the flailing sentences 
their hands willed 
toward farewell,
syllables tailing, 
down and 
gently down, 
too faint 
to make out.


 

Dulcimer

 

(for Lisa Moore)

I bought it 
on Friendship Church Road 
in Aho for $50:

a four string that rings 
bright as the day it was strung
by Squire Elzie Weaver,

the luthier that built it.
The sound board’s finish 
is spruce pine, steamed 

to hour glass-shape the sides.
The inner’s oak for tone, 
body black walnut,

ivory tuning pegs, 
frets are bone.
In long hips below its waist 

swirl slashed sound holes, 
seahorse-shaped; 
and, in the slender bodice above, 

on either side of the sound bar, 
bore 9 punctures, 
like .22 slug eyelets, 

auger-clean – 
arranged in an S.
Sealed with hide or fish glue, one, 

then Ruby shellac cut with alcohol; 
chamfered edges sanded round, 
smooth, though nothing dainty;

brown as turned earth,
the blood-heft of a newborn.
I studied it for initials, 

some signature, fetish, or brand. 
I pored over it with my tongue,
and found nary a trace of Elzie.

Pluck it with a quill,
slide and stop the strings 
with a stick.

Use your fingers; 
it takes, to praise,
a calloused hand.


 

The Coal Miner’s Wife: A Letter

 

(after Ezra Pound’s adaptation, from the Chinese, 
of Li Po’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife, A Letter”)

Southern women have alabaster skin.
-Li Po

We were from the same town, Cowen,
along the Gauley, Webster 
County – church, twice of Sunday,
Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

I swore to every whit of it.
Hair chopped in bangs across my brow, 
I played in moon flowers 
and bleeding hearts. 

Subterranean even as a boy,
feats were nothing to you. 
You crawled the culvert 
pipe to save Blind Ruby’s kitten, 

one eye blue, the other mahogany.
Its affliction was deafness –
plague of the white feline.
It could not hear thunder.

Rain unfolded from the sky,
another flood coming on,
my father, as yours, deep in the pit, 
my mother silent as plums.

What happened to that kitten?
Blind Ruby’s trailer ripped loose
when the branch leapt its bank.
Sycamores bent over the eddies. 

You whispered in my ear. Before that sentence, 
there had been nobody. 
At fourteen, we married.
As foretold, you went to the mines,
 

left Mondays the scullery saltbox 
with your pail, and drove off for wages 
underground in Fayette County.
Never you pressed me. Never I shied,

nor from the rag to scrub the black –
what you could not reach when, 
after years in the pit, hunched,
you could only so far lift your arms.

Five months, now, I have not seen you,
save your smudged letters –
your endearments in smoke:
My Darling. Coyotes weep 

from the cliffs above the Gauley’s white water.
I plant every genus of dahlia, 
emerald moss at the doorsill.
It is September 3rd, the anniversary 

of my father’s death in Elkins Coalfield –
seven years now. 
Billings meadow has not been threshed.
The buckeyes refuse to fall.

Queen Ann’s lace prospers.
Butterfly bushes grand as pipe organs.
Yesterday, on Agnes Ridge, 
I saw an albino wooly worm –

auguring snow or manna, one.
Let me know you’re coming.
I will trek out to meet you 
as far as Camden-on-Gauley.

These poems originally appeared in his new book, Light at the Seams, Louisiana State University Press, 2022. 



Joseph Bathanti