Coal dust on the skin and in the lungs and you and I and all the others watching for the signal to take our shares to the cage and the cage grinding up the shaft to the surface and we were there like the others compelled to gather by the ailing force of a failing experiment and burdened to expend any effort we could bend to prolong our imprisonment and the damp and breathing space in the shaft that day was a moving eddy of night.

It's well said now by someone else in some so well-appointed room but we didn’t think we’d need to set it down right that morning when at first we discovered in cold gusts of black-dust vapor the want of some scintilla of life-giving moisture / in choking eddies scourging first someone from the flames / then one more / then many such / like many another miner so many times before who saw a dearth of water in another's reddening eyes and who but for friends must have want himself of water.

It must have been a fire
They called out


But all our labor will not now so far beneath you who live so far above us even hope to urge the motor to turn the cable to hoist the cage to take us up the shaft to carry even one of us who it seemed were speculators hedging our own graves in the damp as we dug along the downslope of the vein and the air exploded and the vein collapsed.

This may have become more acute after our mad rush from the fire and the cold and airless dark a wanting space where the flickering light of invitation flared then blew out and we went out and farther down now fanning out all weary our labored breathing almost a unison.

An eddy would mean there was some air in the tunnel with the dark and the damp and our bodies and stuck in a layer of waiting with watering eyes after so thick a bloom of heat and gas and the fire urged us on until our bodies gave out / unconscious.

Damp is gas it derives
From the German word dampf
It means vapor


Still in us the speaking wells and still in the walls of this wanting space of depthless walking the still and thinning air articulates us / and / and as / and to / all the others breathing their sufferings in and out.

We knew them personally whose names the damp destroyed in close and solid dark and down through centuries of lightless wondering if the argot of remembered songs sang air and morning right in a smoking underworld and a sea of fire and we drank water from each other’s eyes our breaths suspended.

We stood our watch with them as always and at set times and until we set out from our thirst and before we lost our lives but each time we set out we returned run back from the heat and the thin air of the mine.

We were looking for
The miners working the seam
Had note-books for
Heard voices offering evidence


There we have daily died before our deaths and daily thereafter we continue to die / of the certainty of accident / in the margins of acceptable loss / of our imagined and in our imagined calamity / and alone.

Not so that death we were to die this day in heat and damp a collective in unhomely tunnels expiring in choking solitude among desultory eddies of gas aloft around the lights whose flickering beams flared then broke then failed against the suffocating somehow cold and the somehow solidifying darkness of the somehow burning mine.

There we have slept and waked and walked and continue to walk in the solitary darkness and with a wild hilarity and to hell with rescue and damn the time that it takes to walk from a car to a cage through a space that's suddenly smoke and at the church that night and in the waiting room the next morning that death we died in so long a series of miners and so long a series of mines and through on down from then to now was in its last stages colder and more rousing and durable.

Walking incident to dust and damp and flame
We sought somehow to get up
From the bottom of the mine


No light in the shaft no heat from the flames and we pass through gusts of gloom and smoke and the thinning air eddies in diminishing blooms and billowing damp. No rescue in it. Eddies again and the seething breathlessness of miners tumbled together in respiring clumps and the friends you lay waiting for do not return this time.

At a certain point a clump of skeletons. A tiny spot. The most awful / the most evident / of ossuaries and you have passed it by again and again now panting now choking through a hatchway leading deeper into darkness and dust and damp / fugitive through unhomely tunnels / to a fuming waiting room before the narrow gate of rescue.

No hope to be saved by means of those same tunnels nor by the few of us who can see but a few feet ahead, waiting with one another in the dark of the mine.


There are five kinds of damp in a mine.

There is black or choke damp. Lacking ventilation the seam absorbs the air and exhales a stifling gas. No flame lamp will burn in black damp. It suffocates you.

There is whitedamp which also forms in coal in piles. Flame lamps burn brighter in whitedamp. It suffocates you.

There is stinkdamp which forms from water and minerals in the rocks around the seam. It suffocates you.

There is firedamp which kindles in the seam itself. It is like to catch fire and explode especially from the spontaneous combustion of coal in piles. That is how they store coal in a mine.

There is afterdamp which mixing in chokedamp replaces the air that firedamp burns away. It suffocates you.  


I was not to see them at work underground. Later I began to see what seemed to be them dying alone. Their notebooks covered up by dust. Their letters scorched and soddened in the mine. Birthed underground and buried and born again into an airless chamber of being-left-behind when the air ignited and a damp snuffed out the lamps and the vein collapsed into what no arch-stone can hope to raise again.

When the owners walk through a slimy and triumphal arch
When bodies make no inspection more acute
When we walk away and steadily from where the dead lie
Dozens now on fresh and early snow
From now on so complete and so completely joined


The fire and the damp had been more in their fashion than their authoritative sources could write / or write out / and nothing came out but came out burned or dead, and so ravaged / but despite it all they could write nothing out.

You return to them at night
Go forth again and always towards the fresh and fading air
There are so few of us, now walking, now resting
We played the role we were expected to play


It must have been a fire they called out / so dense the flame and smoke in that vicinity / no way to rouse you in the gloom.

The darkness obtrudes
Drawing back a daydream
Of fresh air

Andrew Cantrell is a poet, labor activist, first-generation (former) academic, and working-class southerner transplanted to the Midwest. He is the author of the chapbooks Year Zero (above/ground press), Phantom Equator (above/ground press) and Stratigraphy (Finishing Line Press). A Pushcart Prize nominee, his work has been published widely, including in Posit, Lana Turner, Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology, and Vestiges (Black Sun Lit). Since 1993, he has served as a rank-and-file organizer, steward, and elected leader in local unions of the American Federation of Teachers and the Communication Workers of America, and has also organized hospital, industrial, and educational workers in Pennsylvania and California, and across the Midwest. He currently works in Chicago, where he organizes public employees, secondary and higher education faculty and staff, grad workers, and teaching artists. He was recently named a Finalist for the Fonograf Editions Inaugural Open Genre Book Prize.