Friday, October 27, 2017



Code of Signals by Kenneth Sherwood
(Moria Press/Locofo Chaps, 2017)

Deceptively anachronistic, Code of Signals is part safety manual for 19th-century mine shaft lift operators, part algorithmic program, and part meditation on coal and the lives of its miners.  Sherwood assembles these elements into a delicate allegorical architecture that invited me into deep reflection on the politics of our own particularly troubled moment in American history.

As different signals are sounded, like bells communicated to mine engineers, coal is framed scientifically, aesthetically and culturally, but most poignantly and most prominently, as an instrument of and marker within the fraught class dynamics of the country then and now.  Grainy, colorized photos are paired like bookends with sensational Victorian headlines of mining tragedies around scenes in the life of a poor Pennsylvania miner’s family yearning for the warmth of his company and a fire in their own grate.


High-grade anthracite
a dense, hard rock
with a jet-black color
and a metallic luster

“Your father is out of work,
and we have no money to buy coal.”

it burns slowly,
with a pale



C240 H90 O4 NS

Sherwood’s vignettes are subtle, loose and mesmerizing.  And, while there is not the slightest trace of didacticism or moralizing in Code of Signals, my mind repeated turned to the tens of thousands of men throughout the centuries that have been told to be grateful for this most dangerous, uncomfortable and humiliating work.  In the history that Sherwood paints, I can understand the sense—to some degree—in this mercantile logic.  But as the last signal bells ring down to silent memory, there can be no reason to hold so tightly on to that ideology, particularly when sustaining a commitment to it endangers now not just the lives of miners.

This finely-crafted chapbook draws inspiration from Williams, Reznikoff and Zukofsky but should not be consigned to abstract debates about old modernisms—it has as much to contribute to arguments about the contemporary American lyric as it does to arguments about our attachment to fossil fuels.


Consider how in
to a place

Mark the sites

Can one read the
in our present
from the hands

This signal takes
precedence over all
others, except
an accepted blast

Fatal Effects of a
False Theory 


Martin Spinelli is Senior Lecturer at the University of Sussex.

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