Black Lung

My grandpa was a coal miner in 1923

living in a land eroded to dust,

sweating until black paste stained his face

and streaked like tiger stripes down his arms and legs.

he tore his lungs to the barest nebulae

only to earn a deeper spot in the pockets of 

greasy fingernail rail men who never even noticed hard work

(in all its bedraggled glory)

pass them by in the street.


Did he see it coming?

did he know a day would come

when pressed books of fossils in the earth would be his boon,

and Finland would just be another peanut on a map?

maybe he watched his dirty children play in the street 

with a barefoot Chinese boy from three houses down.

seeing the future running on,

shoving him deeper into the rocks,

was he content with his lot?


in a ramshackle coal town: 1923

leaning rock walls burst like firecrackers

and he became another printed name

in the newspaper’s obituary.

somewhere, a widow must have cried, 

maybe in the crawl space under the stairs, 

so her children wouldn't hear.

and maybe a railroad tycoon felt regret somewhere

beating at him under the layers and layers of clothes

coating his skin like thin sheets of paper.


I may never know what

he came here for, the reasons why

grass sprouts lie fresh and alive under January snows

all I know is there is no sly, side mouthed excuse 

for my despair at an eight hour work day in a retail store

he died from a flipped switch, a fluke in man’s nature

while above the ground

we thrive on the fumes.


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