Coal Hollow Ekphrasis

Floyd Cheung





                                                                                    September 26           
           
A rainy day and the preschool is closed for staff-training, so I take my four-year-old son to the museum at the college where I work.  We go often enough that he has his favorite paintings.  After visiting a few, we seek out the new exhibition: Coal Hollow, forty photographs of mining communities in West Virginia, all taken in the last ten years, by Ken Light. 

Three photographs capture my son’s attention.

Mining Accident, 1965 (2002): a close-up of someone’s hand missing a thumb.  I explain the idea of an industrial accident, but my son insists that this is a trick.  He goes so far as to demonstrate how he can tuck his thumb behind his closed fingers.  We move on but not before I realize that this picture is the definition of metonymy: part for whole.  The hand stands in for the person or for labor, the labor required to produce the electricity that makes modern life possible, and the absent thumb for the cost of that labor to the person but not usually recognized by me.  Nor do I recognize . . .

Johnnie, fifty-two years old (2001): a portrait of a man with a bulge the size of a tangerine in his right cheek.  I guess that this is a tumor, some kind of cancer.  My son loses his fascination quickly.  Johnnie fixes his right eye on me, while his left, already pointed askew, follows him to . . .

Chelsea, six years old, playing in the coal bin (2001): she’s wearing sandals, carrying a smudged doll, and looking to her right as she sucks her left index finger.  A shovel lies next to her.  “Where is she?” asks my son, and I try to explain, but he doesn’t understand the role of coal in our lives.  Who among us does?  Soon enough, he asks for the cookie I promised him as a post-museum snack.

When I pick up my daughter from her ballet lesson, I tell her about Coal Hollow and ask whether I can take her to see.  She’s nine and distracted by the prospect of playing Clara in our local production of The Nutcracker.  She declines my invitation, but I resolve to return.
           
                                                                                                September 30

Along a wall are several photographs and an oral history by Melanie Light about religion including one depicting a . . .

Tent Revival in Delbarton, WV (1999):light from above focuses attention on an older woman with white hair, eyes closed, mouth open, hands raised, leaning back, and surrounded by other enthusiastic people.  A man shouts at her, but she doesn’t seem to hear.  I’ve read about the Great Awakening.  I even attend a church named after Jonathan Edwards, but this woman is experiencing something I never have.  On NPR, I heard that the creators of SimCity and Spore tied a virtual community’s level of religious fervor to its level of suffering.  But how do we identify and measure suffering?  Do I assume too much while viewing . . .

Natasha, eight years old (2002): a girl in a Minnie Mouse outfit, hands folded, feet bare, hair wet, standing in front of her trailer on a porch that, without any railings, reminds me of a loading dock.  “STEP” is spray-painted on the exposed edge.  Natasha’s left foot curls over the P.  Empty beer cans, shoes, bowls, cooler lids, and boxes lie on and beneath the porch.  Looking closely, I can see that a caged bird hangs from the soffit.  In contrast, Natasha seems free to fly away, ready to lift off.  Yet is she held back, not by bars but much more powerful forces?  Or is she simply at home?

                                                                                                October 9

It’s my birthday in a few days.  I haven’t convinced my wife or daughter to come with me yet, so alone again I visit all of the photographs but focus on . . .

Ricky, forty-seven years old, and Eva, forty, husband and wife, in their bedroom (2002):they sit on their bed in near darkness, he shirtless.  The single bulb is screwed into a socket that has two outlets, one of which is in use by a cord that leads out of the frame.  These people make enough electricity to power half the nation but have to rig light-bulb sockets and extension cords to eke out a little for themselves.  Nothing is on the walls, and while there is a comforter, no fitted sheet is on their mattress.  This room defies my ideals of domesticity, but I wonder what Ricky and Eva think.  He looks at me with what seems to be dignity or at least territorial protectiveness, his right arm around his wife.  She has knit her hands together and avoids my gaze.  I leave them in their silence to consider . . .

Ku Klux Klan Speech at the County Court House (1999):a man in a white conical hat, sunglasses, and white suit with four stripes on his sleeve speaks into a microphone while another man with a similar outfit but only two stripes stands behind him, arms folded. The photographer has composed this image so as to balance the Klansmen on the left side of the frame with a sheriff standing on the right.  Hands clasped behind his back, the latter looks on with an expression I can’t read.  Does the sheriff support, tolerate, or disdain the words of the speaker?  The photographic medium mutes the Klansman, though the PA system and venue amplify what I can’t hear.  I imagine that I cannot possibly agree with anything that he’s saying, but I wonder whether growing up in a trailer home with a coal bin for a play area, suffering from an industrial injury, or attending a tent revival would dispose me to listen differently. 







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