Please help the Black Earth Institute continue to make art and grow community so needed for our time. Donate now »

a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society

Heather Swan

Columbia Coal

Inside the factory, fine black soot
coats the floors and the walls, and soon
our nostrils and tongues. Nothing
is small in this place where coal is cooked
for power. I’ve spent thirty-seven years
in here,
Jerry says, as he guides us
over steel grate bridges four hundred feet
from the ground, and past the massive boilers
and dripping corroded pipes, and down
to the infernal fires. He hears
and smells anything going wrong, and
has risked worming his entire body
through narrow, searing tubes in order
to make repairs. I saw it was an act
of love. I thought of my mother, a potter,
also a tender of fires, who taught us to read
the colors of the flame in her kiln. She knew
when the fire was hungry and how to read
the smoke. He says they added scrubbers
to the chimneys once they knew what was
pouring out. The lines in his face are like
the map of a delta becoming more tangled
as things erode. No one told him
when he took this job he would be party
to any destruction. He just understood
when folks flipped switches in town,
and the lights came on, it was because
of the work he knew how to do.


The handfuls of dead bees
she finds after the spraying
are not the worst part
for the beekeeper.
It’s the bees still struggling
that gets to her. Limping
in a circle like someone
who’s been spinning
on a tire swing for too long,
who then stands—dizzy,
nauseous, stunned.
Their wings shudder,
but they cannot fly.
These insects whose bodies
know the rhythm
of the blossoms,
the changing angles
of the sun, whose alchemy
gives us liquid gold,
whose love affairs
with pistils and stamens
give us apricots,
almonds, melons.
To witness is to be
dredged, she thinks.
What war do we think
we’re winning?


Heather Swan’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as Poet Lore, The Raleigh Review, Midwestern Gothic, Basalt, and Cream City Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in places such as Aeon, ISLE, Resilience Journal, About Place, and Edge Effects. Her creative nonfiction book, Where Honeybees Thrive, is forthcoming from Penn State Press in October of 2017. She earned her MFA in poetry and PhD in English and Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin Madison, where she was the recipient of the August Derleth Award for Poetry and the Martha Meyer Renk Fellowship in Poetry. She is also a beekeeper.

Other works by Heather Swan »

©2024 Black Earth Institute. All rights reserved.  |  ISSN# 2327-784X  |  Site Admin