Sarah McCartt-Jackson

Board and Batten

1. Clearing

All the trees were already gone
burning in their hillside stumps,
piles of ashes, brittle doe eyes
black and sunken, looking into the earth
instead of starward  

then come a tide to carry them off
rush their trunks downriver
to be dried and planed, board and batten
that make up our camp buildings
row after straight-edged row

2. Blasting

We tamp down the dynamite, split the rock
             strata, splinter each slate slice, shattered plates
                          of frozen mud, shocked out of crags,
             gray-cold slivers stuck one by one

into our hearts, tucked into the farthest corners
             and rows of our paychecks, 
                          licked envelope torn seal

She swears our wild children have followed me here
             that they thrust their fists out of the rockcuts
                          clutch our lamplight, drape it on the walls, gather light
                                       like faces gathering

3. Digging

Where have all the breakermen gone
who worked with me on the dragline
They shed their skin, flake by flake
their rust-colored shadows grow tall
22 stories high taller than the tipple
carrying buckets of slate and rock
lungs filled with each other’s coughs
their shovels nudge each granite pit
rake through the memory of plowed fields
strain to smell the taste of a riverbottom field
slightly copper, slightly salt

4. Dumping

overburdened mules, endless leather tackle,
                                                                        bridled to a cart
how each cart dumped into a railcar
forms a dustcloud, that feeds on ascending sun warmth
and looms over the tipple, straight up

how each man bends and turns away, the creature at his back
rumbles, the mine mouth at his face reaches out its gritty fingertips 
taps silently on each lamp, intimidates the flame 

5. Processing

Where have all the tipplemen gone
who worked with me in the cold coalwater
harp-eyed boys on the loading booms 
who measure their worth in slate and bone: 
nut and slack: the size of your fingers making an o
egg: the size of your wife’s hollowed palm
and block: the size of your two fists
cuffed against my two fists, or a brick

We wash ourselves of the excess day
Watch water pour from the bucket clean 
Watch sludge clay slurry away foul

6. Reclamation

We keep near the tipple a mountain 
of low-grade coal dumped and heaped 
shouldered against exposure
As it grows, something deep within them
sparks a spontaneous fire which breaks
out, spreads, and burns inexorably

And each night the fire dies. And each day it rises again.


What Ora Heard

(after the Mine 18 siren)

I heard the long yawn of a cat, saw its mouth
like sky full of high clouds milk-white and cold-stung. Cloudburst 
scouring the field with rain, field mice 
rushing for unflooded furrows. Your voice the sound
of last leaves fallen wet and frost-rimed, every night
broke open like a chrysalis with thousands of  insects scrabbled out. 
It was the sound of teeth marks on bone, ripe coal 
burning blue then red then—

I heard and hated that train horn wedged in my chest,
felt a trembling black river of coal stumble at the tipple
of your lips, raw sound that was your voice
but not words, just groans scraping your body
on their way out, scratching through your hands
that quivered and shook out the sound stuck in you.

I heard a hawk call needled through my ear, its hoarse-bright
kee-eeeee-arr shined like white thread in the brown branchlight.
And somewhere on a limb high in a poplar, I saw you naked 
and plumed, calling: 
             mirrored lake sound, pierced, afraid:
O jaybird stuck in its nest, limb-swayed and empty.



Kentucky poet, naturalist, and folklorist Sarah McCartt-Jackson has been published by and received honors from the Academy of American Poets, Kentucky Arts Council, Kentucky Foundation for Women, Copper Nickel, Indiana Review, Journal of American Folklore, Tidal Basin Review, NANO Fiction, and others. She is currently artist-in-residence for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is the author of two chapbooks, Vein of Stone and Children Born on the Wrong Side of the River


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