The Coal Life


Poems by Adam Vines
80 pages, 5.5 x 8.5
978-1-55728-980-3 (paper)


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Finalist: 2012 Miller Williams Poetry Prize

In many of the poems in The Coal Life, Adam Vines, an avid outdoorsman and former professional landscaper for nearly twenty years, explores the cultural landscape of Alabama coal-mining camps in the first half of the twentieth century and how the industry can shape and distort a cultural text similar to the way it contorts and upturns the physical landscape. Other poems in the collection—some autobiographical, some assuming the personae of voices as varied as Gauguin, Magritte’s Daemon, Georg Cantor, post-Eden Adam, Hamlet, and an old fisherman railing against new-fangled technology—express how we are all mining our memories, our cultures, and the natural world in an attempt to grope toward identity. Vines reminds us that poetry embodies and preserves transient emotion, perception, and flesh just as coal compacts and ossifies the vitality of an ancient landscape, and he reveals that the charge of the poet is to mine language, extract it and haul it to the surface, separate from it what is useless, and palm what will rekindle the fire of living experience.

Adam Vines is assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and editor of the Birmingham Poetry Review. His poems have been published in Poetry, North American Review, The Cincinnati Review, and The Greensboro Review.

“This week I’ve returned to The Coal Life, the 2012 debut collection from Birmingham Poetry Review editor Adam Vines. And it’s still staggeringly good. Vines has this way of delivering a deliciously playful line with a face so straight you feel like a fool for thinking words could work any other way. Check out “River Politics” over at Poetry for a prime example, and then spring for the full set.”
—Samuel Fox in the Paris Review

The Coal Life is not a book about nervous breakdowns, addictions, madness, taboos, or debauchery, and in this sense a quote from John Updike comes to mind: ‘I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.’ Vines—within neat stanzas and muscular, loaded lines—does a superb job of situating his poems in this restless, ambiguous middle zone where most of us live our lives.”
—Alex M. Frankel in The Antioch Review, Fall 2012

“Adam Vines’s command of the sounds of the English language is delicious, but it never prettifies what he sees in the world. These are poems of real life and of the physical condition of being alive in all its joy and difficulty. A hardscrabble childhood, a self-demanding adulthood, both emerge in poems full of fine ironies and a mature acceptance.”
—Mary Jo Salter, author of A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems

“Arguably the finest metaphor in The Coal Life is found in a dynamite box: a mine rat’s nest of ‘chewed scripture and company scrip.’ But in every poem, Adam Vines balances a tension perfect as it is uneasy—between life’s ‘urge for change, flight, and sex’ and the more patient resolve of faith in a world beyond ‘the mutable zodiac’ of this hard-wrought human universe. Perhaps these poems were conceived in the ‘shadow myth of ruins,’ but they emerge as the best poems do—‘leaning to the light.’ The Coal Life is remarkable—and necessary.”
—Claudia Emerson, author of Figure Studies: Poems

“Adam Vines’s The Coal Life is a book mined from linguistic, literary, and historical underworlds. These poems keenly observe and deeply ponder; they dig into the mineral dark of memory, uncovering along the way forgotten and abandoned voices, idioms, occupations, thwarted desires, moments of grace in misery, and accidents of astounding beauty. An extraordinary first collection, The Coal Life is built to last even while it rests upon ‘the shadow myth of ruins.’”
—Alan Shapiro, author of Old War: Poems

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