By Mike Templeton

It is a striking coincidence that I finally picked up Will There Also Be Singing? by poet and Urban Appalachian Community Coalition Core Member Pauletta Hansel just as I see in my social media feed an update from Appalshop on a film about the 1972 coal-waste dam disaster in southern West Virginia. This film is a documentary on the collapse of a coal-waste dam on Buffalo Creek owned by the Pittston Company and the horrific aftermath. The destruction of the environment, human lives, and entire communities is just one more example of the ways the extraction industries have exploited and destroyed the Appalachian region over the decades and these themes are at the center of many of these poems. Among the visions of contemporary life that form the basis of Hansel’s new book, the lives of Appalachian people who live with the bleakness that is the legacy of the extraction industries, most notably coal.

Thus, the title of the collection, taken from a famous quotation by Bertolt Brecht: In the dark times, /will there also be singing? The answer, of course, is yes, there will be singing about the dark times, and indeed, that is what these poems do.

The need for a steady paycheck along with the fatalistic certainty of dying before the mines shut down are crucial themes in these poems. In “Harlan County, USA (2019)” we read: “Let me tell you what we love/ about coal./ It’s the paycheck./ The one we don’t have.” The poem goes on to list a range of things they do not have after working their lives away in coal mines. These coal mines that extract the coal and extract the life out of the people who work them give us miners such as the one who reacts to the news of Coronavirus by telling us “We’re used to coughing up a lung—hell, we’re packed/ so tight into the mantrip who can even tell whose lung it is.” These lines are from “A Coal Miner’s Wife Reads News of Coronavirus.” The collection opens with these poems, and with this Pauletta Hansel appears to come out with the gloves off.

And it is bare-knuckled that these poems walk us through contemporary American life with all of the nightmares, heartbreak, and fear that seems to characterize life in this country these days. While these opening poems of coal mines in Appalachia may lead you to think this is going to be limited in some way to the region, what we find is so much more than that and yet exactly that.

Still, there are three powerful lines that could easily sneak past us if we are not careful, and they come toward the end in a poem called “On Grief: November 2016,” and these lines refer to something quite specific, but I feel as though they speak for everything in this collection. Amid reflections on grief and one who speaks on the issue of grief quite personally, the poem tells us, “But we’re a meaning-making animal,/ (that’s me talking now) always/ searching for some reason.” Maybe this is what all of these poems are ultimately about; how to make some meaning and find some reason—often amid the most unreasonable things.

I believe it is crucial to recognize that the experiences of loss, fear, danger, and grief that are the themes of so many of these poems are formed out of deeply personal experiences. For many of us, the catastrophes of nature and industry that make the headlines out of Appalachia are distant, even if we are connected to the places and the people. However, Pauletta Hansel is writing about her homeplace. As we read a poem like “Aerial View of Catastrophic Flooding in Eastern Kentucky” (composed entirely from Facebook posts the day following the July 2022 flood), we are also reading a report back from one who is looking at her home, her neighbors, and her family: “This is our place in Hueysville./ This was my Mother’s house before she passed./ Samantha’s sister’s house is by that blue bridge.” This is one writing about the nightmare of seeing her homeplace destroyed by yet another disaster that is yet another legacy of King Coal.

There is a profound irony in the final line of this poem that tells us “You need to understand the nature of the topography.” This is one of those moments in poetry that can run both ways. Do we need to understand topography in order to better use the land without endangering people? Or does the knowledge of topography operate as a threat to those responsible for these disasters? This is a moment of Blakean irony, one in which innocence and experience are contained within a single line.

And it is on emphatic notes of Blakean irony that the book leads us out with the poem “Diptych” in which we read:

There is a hinge. Close

the two sides together

and you have a book. It is

an old story. How it’s told

depends on how

you open it again.

I quote them at length so as not to dilute the perfection of imagery that evokes not so much the either/or of experience but rather, the way so much of life seems to be lived right on the border, on that “hinge” where the book can read of love and loss, horror and triumph, anger and forgiveness. If we are truly fortunate, we are given the chance to live the experience and re-open the book to come to understand the old story. Pauletta Hansel’s poetry sweeps you along like this. You are never in for feint hearted sentimentality. You are in for intense experiences that come with all of the complexity and depth that makes them worth reading and living.

If you would like to hear Pauletta Hansel read from her new collection, Will There also be Singing: Poems, published by Shadelandhouse Modern Press, here is a list of upcoming readings.

Friday, May 31, 6 pm, Dapper Owl. Poetry in the Boro, Murfreesboro, TN

Sunday, June 30, 6 pm, Word of Mouth Series, MOTR Pub, Cincinnati, OH

Tuesday, August 6, 7 pm, Poetry Night at Sitwell’s, Sitwell’s Coffee House, Cincinnati, OH (With Ohio Poet Laureate Kari Gunter-Seymour!)

Wednesday, August 7, 6 pm, Poetry at the /’tāb(ə)l/ Series, Kenwick Table, Lexington, KY

Monday, August 19, 7 pm, Writers Can Read Series, Heritage Station, Huntington, WV

Friday-Saturday, September 20-21, Punch Bucket Lit Inaugural Literary Festival, Asheville, NC

Information about Will There also be Singing: Poems can be found at:

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of The Chief of Birds: A Memoir, available from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iff Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s Cultural Directory. He lives in West Milton, Ohio with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city and the country snapping photos. She looks up at the grandeur above, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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