The Coalwife’s Son – by Andrew Mertes


My job began in my ninth year

When Pop signed me up with the clerk.

Mother said naught, fighting her tears,

As off her boy went to do grown men’s work. 


Each day that I spent down in the earth,

Sifting the coal which sliced deep my hands,

Earned a half-dollar. My hard work worth

Just cents for my folks, poor with no lands.


The old Foreman’s anger I soon knew,

In boot marks on my bum he had kicked.

Yet on breaks he would gift me some chew,

Bragging proudly of the men he’d licked.

I shook with joy the few times I could play

With other children. Oh, the useless bliss!

But back in the dark after those Sundays

Memory of fun hurt even more to miss.


And this became my life’s sound routine,

Filling up coal in my cart’s long rungs.

Childhood view could not have foreseen

The slow death which gathered in my lungs.


Rainy spring day I at last collapsed.

Another child doomed to no longer grow

Older to see his life in long lapse.

It was then Mum’s tears could freely flow.


2 thoughts on “The Coalwife’s Son – by Andrew Mertes

  1. I did not write this out of any desire for high art or to expose the human rights travesties of yester-centuries. I simply found that period to be interesting. I’ve read accounts of how such children were forced to work and often died of coal dust coating their lungs. I wondered what the scenario could be like from their perspective.

    My biggest influence on this poem would be the work of Colin Meloy of The Decemberists. He is far and away my favorite musician. I’m not very musically inclined, I just know if something sounds nice I’ll like it, but his work transcends music in my view. Not only is he a talented musician and showman, but his songs are phenomenal even if taken from a purely literary viewpoint. His background in writing is readily apparent, as is his family pedigree (his sister being the wonderful author Maile Meloy).

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