Saturday, January 7, 2012

M+H Zinc, Spelter, West Virginia

The smelter plant before its demise.

This time last year (when I was in residence at the Vermont Studio Center and had no inkling that I would be returning to work full time within a matter of months), I began to write about the zinc-smelting plant in Spelter, WV. I grew up there in the plant's shadow, though it had been derelict for years. My grandfather John Walsh worked there for more than 20 years before the factory abruptly closed in 1971 when so many zinc operations in the U.S. were outsourced overseas.

DuPont demolished the factory in Spelter and capped the site in 2002-03. And in 2007 a group of residents successfully sued DuPont for corporate negligence that had exposed thousands of area residents to dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium. For decades factory waste had been dumped in a towering pile, seeping into the soil and the West Fork River. Because of the court settlement, most of my family and I will receive medical monitoring for the next 40 years for particular cancers and other conditions that may be linked with this prolonged heavy metal contamination in the water table.

It's an issue that hits close to home with me on many levels (environmental degradation, corporate barbarism in Appalachia, grassroots resistance, family history, labor, etc). And it presents the all too common challenge of making the political personal, the personal political, and making both into art.

For several months, I have flailed about looking for a structure, the right form, for this work that centers on the zinc plant. The current draft occupies some dozen pages in my yellow legal pad. Will it be a long poem of many parts? A linked sequence? A series of related poems? Right now I am taking my cues from Diego Rivera's mind-blowing Detroit Industry fresco cycle in Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Art. I've spent many hours in that room lost in the machinations and colors, the play between nature and industry and indigenous and industrial myth.  Here's a piece of the North Wall's largest section:

I appreciate the feeling that my eye is directed within each segment of the mural but that I am also free to perceive the whole of the composition in any order. The segments each stand alone and work together to form a grander narrative. Here then is the first panel in this assembled cycle I am continuing to work on:

   On the splasher floor no one spoke. We worked

   together by the smidgy light of furnace vents,

   the molten metal and cherry tips of cigarettes.

   Each day a choreography of shadows: break

   the clay, pour the zinc, haul the chains, dam

   the trough in time. Hoist the bucket, don’t get

   burnt. Pour each ingot down the line. The heat

   was suffocating. Clouds rose from each soiled man—

   the stink of caged animals sweating through their bars.

   The dust of the floor became greasy with fat. A body is ¾

   water and we evaporated one cupful at a time.

   The rivets in our jeans burning like hornets.

   And the old guys had it worse, hauling the extra

   pounds those extra years darkly, tasting zinc

   at the back of the throat, half choking,

   they’d say, “Made in Hell, more like it.” Leering and

   half-proud of simply surviving the shift, dangling

   out the 4th floor window breathing dead light between

   smokes. And what did I know of hell then, all of twenty

   wet behind the ears working the college summer break

   for beers? Those men had given years, hefted Vulcan loads

   in sync, exhaled heat and steam and hope

   of anything, any other life. And still they danced  

   circles around me on the slippery floor.  Perspiration

   mingling in the air—Gonzalez, Menendez,

   Shingleton and the rest—was what we breathed

   for three and a quarter an hour.

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