Poems from The Sunshine Mine Disaster


Death Benefits
Safety First
Let Us Say the Vanished Have Left Something
Under God

Maura: They're altogether this time, and the end is come. May the Almighty God have mercy on Bartley's soul, and on Michael's soul, and on the souls of Sheamus and Patch, and Stephen and Shawn; and may He have mercy on my soul, Nora, and on the soul of every one who is left living in the world.

Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever and we must be satisfied.

--J.M. Synge, Riders to the Sea


Alice Hillman, like the other
forsaken, can only dwell
on detail--how her Howard
died of monoxide asphyxiation

in twenty maybe thirty
seconds (the coroner could
be that precise for her)--a way
to imagine the ninety-one

men, heaped in smoke, dying
in a cloud. Whenever she
dreams their deaths, it is
the clawing of rock face

for air, the raw metal taste
of the self-rescuers in
their mouths, she wakes--No,
I wasn't there, and she falls

asleep again, dreaming,
taking her husband's
self-rescuer in her hands,
throwing it upon a mountain

of self-rescuers. One miner,
old Avery Killock, tells her,
"You know, Alice, you're lucky
you don't have to see the bodies"

And then she must describe
Howard's disfigurements
to distinguish his body among
the dross: "A scar on his neck

from an accident at
the Sunshine, and his foot
was crushed in a cave-in
at Butte. It's all mangled.

And you know, I wonder
did he die that way? Did
he cry? Was he scared?
Did he try to climb the walls?

Did he try to dig out?" And
there's nothing but talk among
them, the histories of accident:
"And Louis Groos, don't you

remember, he'd been in a car wreck
and the next day, the second,
he went back to work. He said
he had a lucky--something--

on his shoulder. Was it
an angel?"

Death Benefits

The Sunshine Mining Company cannot be sued, for Idaho law provides that employers may be held liable for only workman's compensation claims. State workman's compensation carries a $750 burial award and a maximum $26,550 for a widow without dependent children, a maximum of $35,400 with three or more children. The company offers a $5,000 life insurance package. And with a union- and company-sponsored compensation fund of $225,000 for the seventy-seven widows, 181 dependent children, and hundreds of laid-off miners, the average widowed family can expect death benefits almost equal to two years of a good miner's salary.

Safety First

This is the First Day of the Rest of your Life.
Live it Safely.

--Entrance sign for the Sunshine Mine.

Safety incentive plan:
for 640 consecutive man-hours without a lost-time accident:
an electric can opener;
for 1280 consecutive man-hours without a lost-time accident:
an electric fry pan;
for 1920 consecutive man-hours without a lost-time accident:
a sleeping bag;
for 2560 consecutive man-hours without a lost-time accident:
a color television.

"It ain't Bob Lowery's fault. He's got
a good heart, even though he's too much
company for my blood. But a safety
engineer at Sunshine has got about
as much say as a mucker. Before
Charley Angel left ten years ago,
our safety never slowed. You'd get
tramped quicker for an unsafe mine
practice than for missing a round
or showing up drunk and laying off.
Since he left, it's get that muck
out or else. Of course, a boss likes
to get muck. That's how
he gets his reputation. Mucking first."

Of course, that was Ira Voigt for you,
and he'd be the best at hoarding the safety
time, lugging home an RCA
for his wife, Kate, and proud to be
the first miner to win the color TV. Two
years and not a scratch, and the young miners,
thinking the prizes are just so much
bullshit, would say, "Yeah, Ira was a slow
mucker. He's stoked out even if he hasn't
broken any bones," dismissing his twenty years
in the mines as so much history. Kate now
turns on the RCA. Walter Cronkite reports
the violence at the Miami convention is nothing
like Chicago in 1968. Richard Nixon is
lifting up Spiro Agnew's arm. Their faces
are clean, almost white and joyful. Kate
thinks if men were angels, their faces would be
that color, the tiniest eyelets of light
through the screen's black mesh. It was Bob
Lowery himself who told Ira the men
were too slow to learn how to use
the self-rescuers, that the turnover
was too quick, "You'd have to retrain the men
every six months, or they would forget
how to use them." And Bob is as good
a man as they get; once he was a theology
student, which comforts Kate a little. At
the convention, the delegates rise, a body
of angels, and above them fall the balloons,
unnetted, and governors and senators
touch them, laughing, singing easy in good
time. For Kate, it is the wind that is hard,
running through the summering willows
Ira planted, intoning the old sexual fugues
brought on, oh Lord, by unsettled love.

Let Us Say the Vanished Have Left Something

for me, a Pacific wave that surrenders
its slow way inland, that collapses
in its own sluice, then retreats

west to the older coasts, that leaves
pebbles, mica, and shells
which I will box and shelve

to fill the open shafts. It is how
the vanished tell me it is
about time to go. And I will,

soon enough, but these nights
until then, I will rest, waiting to hear
the awful turn of the ocean coming,

like God's palm chafing toward
Idaho. And I wish that it were
all the voices of the dead I knew

insead of this wave that comes,
every one of their voices decipherable,
returning like blood, pumping my own

blood, so that I become still
in this waiting. That the vanished might
come and think me dead, even then

they might not be mistaken.

Under God

God so temper me.
When I think ascension,
it is the hurl of the icy body,
perfected, to heaven.
But one mile down, among
the rock and rigor-mortised,
it is hard to remember God's
face in the clouds, no more
than the sleight of wind
effacing the under-skiff,
pulling down, and I would
see nothing but the lactating
teats of cows. But how could
a ten-year-old boy submit
such a confession to the other
kids? And so with me, the clouds
were a U-boat, something
my father had fought, and I
could recall each part
from my father's plastic model
in the bottle, especially the dorsal
hull he let me fit, and he steadying
my hand as I held the forceps,
giving the submarine its outer
form. That night I practiced
my signature, playing upon
the variations of D and T,
and nothing worked. I
remember now that extraction
really has to do with something else,
something religious, but that
is gone, too. So much muck. So
much grounding. God, so
temper me. Perhaps extraction
begins with Jonah,
or what father called the sign
of Jonah, speaking out in the whale's
great chambering, underwater, deeper
in it than I, and the voice rang out
of the belly, spilling diaphanous
into water, rising to the surface,
into the air. He could hear it,
my father said, as his PT boat
sounded above the ocean. It's hard
not to think of the German sailors,
those whose submarine stalled
in the depth-charge's shock. What
sounding. What sounding.
And no sign of rescue for six
days. It would be easier, cleaner,
to make my own coffin, to return
down the drift to my station
and slide into the stope, take
a breath. It would be easy, if not
for the faces, none of them
angelic. I have come to think
of Christ, although disillusion
awaits all adoration. Even
so, I am given to beseeching
helpless saviors, the infant
Christ, the crucified Christ. It is
the Ascension I cannot grasp.
There is too much earth. My own child,
with his ten months a wounded vein
in me, may be sleeping above me, and I
still tremble to cover him
although I know he will not wake
by a father's disturbance. I come
to kiss the face of the rock.
It is the face of the Christ.
It is my father's face.
And I will not look again,
for I do not want that old retrieval,
but my family: my wife, my child,
my dread, my own, hearing those calls
home, heeding them in heart, and
oh, how nigh is death, and how nigh
are the ringing censers' sounding
of what might be yesterday,
or tomorrow.

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Last Modified 23 November 1998