Where’s the Poetry?

Coal Mountain Elementary has a lot of great things going for it: a snappy title, introspective photography by Mark Nowak and Ian Teh, moving newspaper reports and testimonials from the perspective of the coal miners, and disturbing lesson plans comparing mining to cookies. The only confusing aspect to the book is the lack of poetry.

Students will:
1. Participate in
a simulated 'mining'
of chocolate chips
from cookies,
using play money
to purchase
the necessary property,
tools, and labor;”
-pg 69

This is not your typical poetry book; it is more of a collage that presents a strong emotion when read. The lesson plans almost detract from the powerful images and words. It feels like they were added as an afterthought to a book already in progress and they are stilted and choppy after reading a heartfelt testimony from a miner. The “elementary” aspect; however, is boggling and creepy, which adds depth to the book. There seems to be ironic tension between the tragedies of mining and the simplistic lessons. Mark Nowak is a political poet and this collage is his statement. Response to the images and testimony naturally fill the reader, but there is also a longing to read and react to Nowak's own thoughts and not just imagine what they could be. In this, I think Nowak stopped short in creating a truly defining work of literature.


Honoring the men, or more accurately the heroes, that brave the mines day in and day out is a compelling focus. Mines are dangerous places to work and it takes a certain type of person to do the job. There are gas leaks, cave-ins, explosive mishaps, and chronic illness from the conditions in mines. Death is unfortunately an experience many minors face. As a book of honor it goes a long way.

“Then after that, we just walked around. I had a family member come and check on me. I walked over to the pit and just stared at the pit for a long time, just hoping to see them walk out.”
-pg 71

Coal Mountain Elementary is a book with equal parts inspiration and information. It is quirky, but incomplete. Perhaps Nowak is teaching us to appreciate the natural disaster that is happening in the mining industry. Maybe it's a commentary about America's unquenched greed. Possibly it's the resilience of human-kind in adverse conditions. Whatever the intention Nowak shows great poetic style with the photographs and the other quotes he included. That in itself makes a fine book.
Mark Nowak Reading:
Thurs, June 4
Arise! Bookstore, 2411 Lyndale Ave. S, Minneapolis, MN

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