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  • Black Lung
  • R. T. Smith (bio)

When Hazel Dickens watched her brother dieof the miner's curse, the room shook with weeping,and she thought, So much cold sweat, so many tears,the womenfolk might's well be mining salt.

As a child singing "Man of Constant Sorrow"in the shadowed kitchen of a sharecropper's shack,she knew even hymns burned their truestwhen you could hear keening beneath the praise.

Singing for the rights of ridgers and diggers,she kept that note close, a ruined lung's gasp.Hazel sang lovelorn, ever angry for the hungry.She learned Maybelle's lick to teach the guitar

to mourn. In her heart she found a soundwith the beauty of redbuds stained darkas a seam of blood coal—pick and drill, carbidelight, blind mules and men's skin shiny

as a wet crow's feather. She gave it throatand breath, the lyrics edged across her teeth,and would not be muzzled for the sake of tactor cash. The maverick activist stood stern

in the city, her flowery skirt and blouseplain that autumn day at the Folklife Fest.Aiming for relief, she unleashed nervy words,the feel of scars, dust deadly as pepper,

grief as wives turn widows and daughterssob, the greed of companies restless to rob."Black lung, black lung" she wailed, "your hand'sicy cold, as you reach for my life and you torture [End Page 66]

my soul." Could she picture poor Thurmanfrozen in his coffin? She felt a mortal chillriddle her bones. Even the hecklers hushedwhen she finished with: "a good man is gone."

In the bowels of the mountain, maybe a calmtouched the seam and the air felt sweetand clean, but soon on hogback ridgesthe riven earth was night-struck again, and men

underground breathed their last. Now we praywhatever snow God allows will never halther hard song amid the tears and sweat.Can we get an amen here before this whole

suffering country is sown with salt? [End Page 67]

R. T. Smith

R. T. Smith serves as Writer-in-Residence at Washington and Lee University where he also teaches literature and edits Shenandoah. Two of his poetry books received the Library of Virginia Book of the Year Award, and his stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories and five editions of New Stories of the South.



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