Earth and Below, Susana H. Case’s book offers the tragic and personal stories of those associated with copper mines across the world. These are stories that chill, haunt, and give one pause as one reflects back on the history of the copper mining industry in the United States. Case, too, considers the media spin of such events, an unsettling recasting of erasure, miss-remembering, and denial.
The first section of Earth and Below, “Struggles,” struggles to take stock of the crimes the mining industry made possible. Girls are trafficked for sex-work, murdered, and their bodies dumped (“Disappearances”). Families are made to starve when employees strike and mines hire scabs to work (“What Doesn’t Wash Away”). Police brutalize picketers with tear gas (“Mission Restore Peace”) and scabs sexually harass female picketers (“Broads”). Immigrants are forced to work (“Avffidavit). Case writes such workers were “Goaded, beaten like slaves,” and “pushed into the mine” (35). Other struggles outlined here include miners trapped in cave-ins for months, violence against strikers, and violence against those who organize against the mine. Case is aware of the complex place in which such workers found themselves. They fight, they protest, they live and die, and sometimes they try to find something to make them laugh. Gallows humor is well executed in Earth and Below. In a poem about trapped miners, Case writes, “Later, one miner calls it a really long shift” (37).
Whereas the final section of Earth and Below focuses on materials eventually made from copper, such as copper pots, copper roofs, copper pennies, copper bracelets, and, copper urns, part II of Earth and Below offers the theories and motivations of mine workers and mine owners. For example, Case explores the ways in which corporations schooled their employees in tactics to prevent worker organizing. They assigned texts as the Strike Bible. “How to Smash a Union…” offers,
Don’t engage in negotiation…No stable wages…Find those born to cross a picket line…Bring in a private security force. (47)
The prose poem concludes, “The [Strike Bible] prepares the reader for a cold, hard run, thanks Phelps Dodge for buying a mountain of copies.” A similar sentiment on violence against workers and the disregard for the lives of the individual is expressed in “Seeberville, The Shooting”. Case writes, “Management doesn’t regret a man’s death” (55). “If You Speak About It, You Will be Fired (Zambia, 2011),” one of several poems that document continued conditions of mine work across the world, documents what workers must face in contemporary mines:
No gloves. No gumboots. No work suits. No hard hats.
Pain sticks to the lungs, the head. Too many fumes, dust after a blast.
Sliding rock, the crush of fingers, legs, neck— (57)
Case’s litany poem in Earth and Below is well needed. It repeats on the word “pray” (“33 Miners, 2300 Feet, 69 Days”). Other poems seek to explore the plight of immigrant workers as they theorize why they need such work, such as in “Zeno in Keweenaw”:
He wants to keep his job, is adept at shafts.He believes in paradox, is astute. But, he’s tired; it’s hard to lift each foot. When he thinks about the beginning of his shift, his eyes squeeze shut—he can’t even start to begin. (50)
This is also the case in “Oma Tupa, Oma Lupa”:
The Finns swarm in, not sure what to do, but intend no harm—seeking refuge, and most are broken, body part by part, scratching for a foothold in a factory or hard rock mine. (52)
Chillingly, Case also offers the perspective not of the miners or their families, but of those whose interests lie in the profits such an industry creates. Though the poem on the Strike Bibleis illuminating in its depiction of the rational of mangers, Case also chronicles the lives of those made wealthy by the mines who live a life in near-denial (“I Wasted Time…”) and the perspectives of reporters who erase real mining conditions to present something more pleasant to the papers. “Reporter from Oak Park, 1914” offers such an account:
On conditions in the mines: how healthy and young the laborers look…The air is fresh, free of dust, a contrast to the icy winds outside… They’re happy— (63)
This media spin is echoed in “Copiapo” when miners are trapped so long “They’re edged into anxiety, suicide, bipolarity” (72). The city’s answer to such physiological trauma is “beauty treatments for the wives,” and a five-hour media training to the miners. Case writes, “Their teacher wants them upbeat, entertaining, wants to make them stars”. The poem continues:
Their government wants heroes, carefully edited, it wants a working-men’s set piece, the one still most lively selected as host.No fungal infections scarring skin, no nerve-strung wrecks with wobbly centers, no walking ghosts, no despondent sobbing. (73)
Such accounts explore just how much the stories we tell about our experiences are shaped by hegemonic forces of industry and government.
Earth and Below offers one important aspect rarely found in contemporary poetry collections—the coupling of imagery with poetry. The imagery is vital in such a story because it offers another element of proof beyond the poem, the epigraph, and the end notes. Nearly forty photographs accompany the text. They present mines of the past and present, mines in the United States and across the world. Images include mine shafts, drills, and tear gas canisters. People pictured are miners, survivors of cave-ins, strikers, members of the National Guard, rescue workers, and also the dead—funerals, dead children post-disaster. Ultimately, the complex story offered in Earth and Below reminds us that mine workers have not been cared for in the past, but have been exploited, ignored, and injured. Case’s book demands we acknowledge that such practices continue today, even as she’s aware of the disconnect one might experience on either side of such wealth—the trapped mine worker and the rich white woman wearing Jimmy Choos in NYC. In “The Engineering of Stress” Case writes:
Those underground in that southern hemisphere, can’t even conjure her image, their abyss light years away; they could live in another century if they live, if they live…and if you were to tell her this, she’d say she’s not thinking of copper miners either. She’s stressed from standing on line for the right cake, and even though stressed is desserts spelled backwards, she can’t eat it, is just playing hostess, has to watch her waist.”
This witnessed disconnect is why Case’s Earth and Below is powerful. Poetry is a transformative art because it revises justice and frames poetry as action. Poetry can deploy techniques to resist narratives about cultural violence by breaking silence and by juxtaposing perspective. Such poetry connects the personal, political, and social and thus compels readers to act. Earth and Below offers a complicated story and seems to evoke the call, Reader, what will you do?
About the author:
Laura Madeline Wiseman is the author of more than a dozen books and chapbooks and the editor of Women Write Resistance: Poets Resist Gender Violence (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2013). Her recent books are American Galactic (Martian Lit Books, 2014), Some Fatal Effects of Curiosity and Disobedience (Lavender Ink, 2014), Queen of the Platform (Anaphora Literary Press, 2013), Sprung (San Francisco Bay Press, 2012), and the collaborative book Intimates and Fools (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2014) with artist Sally Deskins. She holds a doctorate from the University of Nebraska and has received an Academy of American Poets Award, a Mari Sandoz/Prairie Schooner Award, and the Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Margie, Mid-American Review, and Feminist Studies.