Hauling Coal in Paradise

you demanded it of us, you shaped our tongues to it, to work it thus, this is our language we know no other, being obedient & hard-working & patriotic you laid it on us, with jingles & charms, threatened denied cajoled, you & your agents, you hooked us with it, pulled us in, you caged us, delivered us wholesale, filled our nostrils with it like exotic spices, like exotic prey & for all that not much of a price for us per head, but indoctrinated, ready to serve, we the expendable, we the necessary, to make the machinery go, we the many like so much fuel for the fire,

in kanawha valley & allegheny hill, or snatched from under the green irish sea, or by the snaky ruhr or the vast upper silesian fields,

soft as peat or hard as anthracite, clothed in wool or animal furs, this rosary of sweat & bone, meager coin, this material religion & black cloud rising, we the servants & the submissive, backbone of a nation, we the consumed & the damned, & it was to us like a book of common prayer, the machine beckoned & we came running, & the electricity generated & the engine ran; & bellowing soot & we running too until we coughed to a halt at end of day,

used up another day of mortal toil, exhausted, set aside, we the living, drunk deep of the bitter concoction, we the living! ruined with alcohol & coke fumes, madness & perils of work, resistance useless, resentment a punishable offense – a ramshackle existence, turn off the hall light keep your mouth shut, maybe the cops will stop kicking down the door,

& above all the rain in autumn

& we licking our wounds & laid up in our beds looking at the stars, dumb honest & loyal, human animals, wondering! our father who art in heaven, above all other gods brilliant & remote, & us made in your image, why have you ignored our plight, why have you abandoned us to this! the wounded in paradise, while you go about in your aztec helicopter, your vishnu aeroplane; while you go about in your celtic robes, your jahweh penthouse of steel and glass,

& we among the cobblestones on a saturday night babbling with blood & semen & false promises, poor compensation
& we who are now in the way & never really cooperative enough to suit management
& we still talking this gutter language
& we whose backs have bent to breaking

you accuse us of failing you!

this is our inheritance, this our life’s pay, this shallow breathing, nothing to show for it, broke, homeless, run off, run away,

blame us, you who offered temptation & then snatched it from our hands; blame us, you who held common reward for decent service at arm’s length, then stole it away

the mine was all & now the mine’s done & earth with its suffering bilious breath opens up its stinking mouth to swallow us whole

& the seas rise as if there is something they could reclaim, & the howl of the hurricane & the desiccated plain, the ruined river valley & wooded hillside exploding in flame, the sheets of rain battering the gulf coast pavement the purple mountains collapsing into ashpits,

& the dead & dying mounting up,

no answers, no answers, it was all we were told to do, it was all we knew, and now it will all go away,

the rust of oil cans, cast aside;
the blackened lungs of women
men of true service, cast aside

we who once upon a time hauled coal in paradise





George Wallace is writer in residence at the Walt Whitman Birthplace, editor of Poetrybay, and author of thirty-seven chapbooks of poetry. A prominent member of the NYC poetry performance scene, he travels internationally to perform his work. He was winner of the Orpheus Prize (Plovdiv Festival), the Corona d’Oro (Korca Festival), the Naim Fresheri Prize (Tetova Fetival), and the Alexander Medal (UNESCO, Piraeus Greece) for contributions to arts and culture.

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