When my nephew was a child, he was entranced by all manner of heavy machinery, once spending hours chatting-up a road-repair crew at the end of his street when he was eight.
So, it was no surprise he jumped at doing grunt work in the oil fields of Forest County just out of high school. Now, in his early-thirties, with a wife, two kids and a prominent oil derrick tattoo on his left arm, I’m proud of what he’s made of himself. However, as an environmentalist, it’s hard for me to reconcile my anger with the lasting impacts the industry is making to our land, water and air, especially in rural PA. While both drillers and activists use statistics and experts to back up their arguments, sometimes it’s the personal that lends the most powerful perspectives.
Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields (Penn State University Press,) a glossy-paged new release by Penn State professors Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin, does just that, juxtaposing Kasdorf’s “documentary” poems with Rubin’s well-composed photos. The effect, as the talented essayist Barbara Hurd asserts in the book’s foreword, is that “By overlapping the voices of third-generation farmers tired of poverty, gas industry workers, anglers and health officials, Kasdorf and Rubin remind us that we all live, consciously or not, within the larger contexts of other people with other stories…mak[ing] survival more possible because we just might learn to stop dismissing those whose story is not consistent with our own.” Shale Play keeps this aesthetic squarely in mind as narratives get elevated when pictures and words come together.
The founding of documentary poetry is difficult to attribute to any one author, though Muriel Rukeyser’s 1938 The Book of the Dead is often lauded as a breakthrough, covering the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel disaster in West Virginia that left hundreds of mostly African-American workers dead from silica exposure. In one passage she writes of, “These carrying light for safety on their foreheads/descended deeper for richer faults of ore,/drilling their death…Carry abroad the urgent need, the scene,/ to photograph and to extend the voice,/ to speak this meaning.// Voices to speak to us directly./As we move. As we enrich, growing in larger motion,/ this word, this power.” Rukeyser’s work here is a call to recognize and act in the face of tragedy that mostly had gone unnoticed. It also highlights a lineage that Kasdorf and Rubin recognize well, in the vein of James Agee and Walker Evan’s classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
As Kasdorf well-explains in an essay for the Center for Mennonite Writing that “Documentary poetry applies the values of contemporary verse—voice, concision, visual imagery, emotional urgency, inventive form—to topics we expect to encounter in the news, such as issues of social justice or environmental crisis. Documentary poets derive their authority not so much from experience and feeling as lyric poets do, as from evidence and empathy. Their methods include deep listening, archival research, quotation of found texts (oral or written). Sometimes writers manipulate or otherwise work with existing documents; other times they actively record the language of others. Often this work seeks to amplify voices or highlight events that might otherwise go unnoticed, or to cast history in a different light.” In a state where fracking mostly receives a free pass for questionable environmental practices and plaintiffs who take them to court are silenced by settlements, maybe these types of narratives can lend agency to the aggrieved and affected.
While Rubin’s photographs pop with color and perspective, it’s the humanizing nature, warts and all, of Kasdorf’s verse that makes the collection feel complicated, conflicted and real. There’s a multitude of voices spread over 23 longer poems. In one, “Happy Holds Forth at Fry Brothers Turkey Ranch on Route 15,” the speaker, who hauls fracking fluid, says, “…everyone deserves a fair trial. But look; what we’re doing/ out here is not good. I sit forever in the cab and pray,/ Take me now! Are you a Christian? I’m sorry,/ it’s just that I’m so tired. The poison that comes up,// they pump back into wells. It might seem OK now,/ but what’s to say it will stay put for two years/ or ten, or how about when our grandchildren grow up?” In the face of climate change and governmental unwillingness to pivot towards renewables, it’s fascinating to hear an insider conflicted by his work.
Coming on the heels of Eliza Griswold’s well-received nonfiction book Amity and Prosperity that focused on the Haney family of Washington County, and with the news that State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is conducting a criminal investigation into similar complaints of fracking related health-issues, Shale Play adds a thoughtfully-complex dimension to an issue that’s far from being resolved to anyone’s liking .