What are some themes in the poem "Working the Face," by Jay Parini?
"Working the Face" is one of several poems Jay Parini wrote about the coal mining society in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Using simple words and phrases, Parini shows how coal mining can be a solitary venture, dangerous but profitable for the men who can handle the pressures. In creating a poem about this archetypal man, he who works alone without complaint, Parini is extolling the virtues of individualism as well as self-determination; the unnamed miner work on little more than his own willpower, almost unknown to the people who use his coal.
He worked, a taproot
tunneling inward, layer
by layer, digging
in a world of shadows,
thick as a slug against the floor,
dark all day long.
He was the prince of darkness,
stalking the village at 6 P.M.,
having been to the end of it,
core and pith
of the world's rock belly.
(Parini, "Working the Face," collected in Working Classics: POEMS ON INDUSTRIAL LIFE by Oresick & Coles)
The miner is essential to his own work; although the more industrial tunnels can be worked by machinery and teams of men, the lone miner "working the face" must tunnel in a passage barely larger than himself. He is defined by his work, "thick as a slug" because he can barely inch forward or turn around, and always "tunneling inward" like a "taproot," the thick water-bearing root of a plant that must continue to spread and search for water. The miner must also tunnel inward, because the surface coal is lesser than the deep coal seams. He is ignored by others, but always working and always moving forward, and his understanding of the world, while limited, may be more perceptive than that of others, since he is literally inside the world while others merely inhabit the surface.