Review of Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin, Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields (University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018).

Issue 2019, vol. 73

Around seven or eight years ago when I began more frequently hearing the word “fracking,” I knew right away what it was, in impact if not method.

Back in the late ’80s, only a handful of years out of college, I was a volunteer with Mennonite Central Committee where I’d grown up, in Harlan County, Kentucky, in the heart of central Appalachia. I worked with a Kentucky citizens’ group that organized around environmental issues. That’s how I met Hazel King, a self-appointed guardian of the mountains, all 4-foot-11-inches of her, when she took me for a hike up into the hills behind her home along the Clover Fork in Harlan County. Her purpose was to show me “subsidence” – places where deep sinkholes had developed in the aftermath of longwall mining for coal.

Longwall is an extraction method that removes the coal in long panels. The ceiling is held up at the coal face by hydraulic supports that are pulled out once the coal has been removed, causing the ground above to “subside” (fall between 4 and 8 feet). Longwall as an underground mining method took the place of the traditional “roof and pillar,” where pillars of coal were left to support the area from which a larger amount of coal had been taken. Subsidence doesn’t only cause sinkholes at the surface, but also deep under homes, barns and wells, causing porches to sag, walls to crack and water to disappear.

As Hazel showed me one effect of longwall mining, and described others, she also talked about “fracking” and its similar results. I think at the time I believed “fracking” referred to another way of mining coal. I’ve learned since that where there’s one fossil fuel, conditions are usually right for the presence of others, and those who want the money to be made from coal certainly don’t stop there. However, I can’t find any evidence of substantial oil and gas drilling in Harlan County in the 1980s. Was Hazel, a Clover Fork native who had a career in the military domestically and overseas before retiring back home, acquainted with fracking from some other context? I don’t know, and she’s long gone, so I can’t ask her. Whatever the answer, she knew its effects and first taught me.

“Fracking” (the short form of “hydraulic fracturing”) has become a familiar word to many in south-central Kansas in the last several years after periodic small earthquakes began rippling under homes and businesses, eventually connected to fracking and wastewater injection in the Oklahoma oil-fields to the south. Fracking and wastewater injection are done through similar processes of forcing water into rock layers deep underground, and have been linked to the earthquakes, which had more severe effects closer to their sources in northern Oklahoma.

But it was only when I read Julia Spicher Kasdorf’s latest book of poetry, Shale Play, that I began to make more connections between my initial introduction to fracking, and fracking in the second decade of the 21st century. Shale Play is a collaborative effort between Kasdorf, a professor of English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University in State College, and documentary photographer and Kasdorf’s Penn State faculty colleague Steven Rubin. (Full disclosure: Julia and I have been friends since we were at Goshen [Ind.] College together in the early ’80s, I have known for several years about her work on the book, and I have been waiting eagerly to see it in finished form.)

Shale Play took shape over a period of six years between 2012 and 2018, “in the play that followed the rush to develop the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. The Marcellus Shale cuts a wide, diagonal swath across Pennsylvania from New York to Maryland, West Virginia, and eastern Ohio. It is the largest natural gas discovery in the United States and, as far as we know, the second largest in the world, after one that straddles Iran and Iraq. In the language of the industry, shale play refers to the commercially exploited region – both geographic and geological, above and below the earth’s surface – containing petroleum or natural gas accumulated in sedimentary rock” (Preface, xv.).

But of course, this book is not a technical manual, and “shale play” suggests far more than its industrial definition invokes. As Kasdorf notes in the preface, there are the men (and a few women) in the pickup trucks driving the back roads, lease contracts in hand, looking for land owners willing to sign away their mineral rights; the political maneuvers in Harrisburg, where lawmakers well-endowed by campaign contributions from oil and gas companies are part of the process to regulate those same companies; the public meetings that pit zoning boards and township supervisors against the public and sometimes each other; and the myriad of human voices – grateful for a desperately needed influx of cash from a new lease or job, heartbroken by the environmental destruction, anguished at the adverse health effects to themselves and their loved ones, cynical, hopeful, guarded, determined. Shale Play is about all of these.

In 1936, a left-leaning young poet named Muriel Rukeyser and her photographer friend, Nancy Naumburg, set off on a road trip from New York City to Gauley’s Junction, W.Va. Their purpose was to investigate and document arguably the worst American industrial disaster of the 20th century, in which laborers digging a tunnel at Hawk’s Nest on the New River were forced to work in silica dust without proper safety procedures or protection, resulting in hundreds, maybe thousands, of deaths by the “slow suffocation” of silicosis. These were the Depression years, when writers and photographers like Margaret Bourke-White, Erskine Caldwell, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and James Agee were traveling the country, particularly the South, to document the economic desperation of rural Americans. The outcome of Rukeyser and Naumburg’s trip to West Virginia was the poem cycle “The Book of the Dead” – intended, like works such as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Agee and Evans), to be text accompanied by photographs. For unknown reasons, that plan never materialized. The poems were published in 1938, however, originally as part of a larger volume titled U.S. 1.

Walter Kalaidjian, professor of English at Emory University who writes on 20th-century American literature, calls “The Book of the Dead” “a modern tour-de-force in its experimental fusion of poetry with nonliterary languages drawn from journalism, Congressional hearings, biography, personal interviews and other documentary forms. The revolutionary signifying practice mounted in this work effected a key displacement of ‘literature’ itself as a bounded, disciplinary field.” Shale Play is square in the tradition of “The Book of the Dead,” and Kasdorf cites Rukeyser as an influence on the poetry and the shape of the book. One of the poems, “Sacrifice Zone, Tioga County, PA” incorporates the first line of “The Book of the Dead”: “These are the roads to take when you think of your country” (75).

Rukeyser was unapologetically making a political and social statement and taking a position with “The Book of the Dead,” while Kasdorf and Rubin, in the poems and the choice of photographs (Rubin began in 2012 photographing what he saw happening around him from the natural gas boom in central Pennsylvania; 74 of those photos appear in Shale Play), are out to give a more balanced perspective. Even that might be reading into their intent, however. They want to show the effects of fracking on people and land, including the views of those reaping the economic benefits in and around the industry (increased business at local restaurants, improved cash-flow for struggling small farms, job retraining for former coal and steel workers that sheds light on the end of a tunnel of unemployment) along with those who walk the roads with their circle-slash-FRACK signs, speak up passionately at board of supervisors meetings, and weep out of earshot of children and grandchildren over the devastating health consequences of natural gas extraction.

Those familiar with Kasdorf’s other published volumes of poetry (Sleeping Preacher, 1992, Eve’s Striptease, 1998, Poetry in America, 2011) will see in Shale Play a departure in genre as she ventures into documentary poetry. She considers herself a lyric poet, but told me, “Look at Poetry in America, at the title poem and ‘Cardio-kickboxing in a Town of 6,000.’ They anticipate the documentary impulse – documenting a time and place. [‘Cardio-kickboxing’] is about life in a small town during the Iraq War and how the war came home. Or even back to Sleeping Preacher. [Many of those poems began when] I was a kid listening to stories from under the table or a quilting frame. They aren’t my experience.”

In 2011, Kasdorf taught an honors course on reading and writing documentary poetry, in which she was “thinking about documentary poetry, teaching documentary poetry, working with students who were writing documentary poetry.” The next year, in the spring of 2012, she went for a ride with her husband, Phil Ruth, on his motorcycle on Rt. 15 in Lycoming County, Pa. They stopped for lunch at Fry Brothers Turkey Ranch on Steam Valley Mountain, and Kasdorf found herself befuddled by the piles of pipe alongside the road, the troughs dug in the hillside, the white pickups, the circling helicopters from which dangled pendants for seismic testing, and the numerous pneumatic bulk tankers in the restaurant parking lot.

They asked restaurant staff what was going on. “The young waitress says last winter they didn’t have to lay / anyone off. The older waitress says the gas just helps out a bit: / on farms around here, you see a new tractor or truck, / someone’s put up a garage or painted his house. Look, / over in Dimock, their water was bad before the gas came” (“Fry Brothers Turkey Ranch with Urbanspoon and Yelp Reviews,” 5).

“I take pride in recognizing what I’m looking at in Pennsylvania,” Kasdorf writes in the preface to Shale Play. “In the past, driving up that road, I would have thought of oxen and Conestoga wagons of Mennonite farmers from Lancaster plying the trail to Ontario after the American Revolution…” (xx). She said to me, “This was 30 miles from where I was born,” among conservative Mennonites and Amish in Lewistown in the Big Valley. “Suddenly I didn’t know what was happening or what this was.” She spoke a term I had never before heard, “solastalgia” – “the pain and loss when your home is changed or lost.” It’s “mental or existential distress,” to quote Wikipedia, that results from extreme environmental alteration – from mountaintop-removal mining to global climate change.

Kasdorf felt “confusion, curiosity, violation,” she said. She thought of the fact that the shale boom in Pennsylvania erupted after Penn State geoscientist Terry Engelder made public in 2008 his calculations of the vast extent of the Marcellus Shale formation. For her 2013-14 sabbatical, Kasdorf began in earnest on the project that would become the text of Shale Play. One thing she did was convene the Penn State Marcellus Shale Gas Ethics Interest Group, inviting anyone from Penn State working on research or issues related to the Marcellus Shale to meet and talk ethics. That’s how Kasdorf and Rubin met, learned they were independently working on similar projects, and began their collaboration.

During her sabbatical, Kasdorf made multiple visits to two regions of Pennsylvania, north-central and southwest (she grew up in the latter, in Westmoreland County east of Pittsburgh), areas with two distinct extraction histories – oil and gas, and coal and coke, respectively. She attended citizens group gatherings and public meetings, and talked to activists, industry employees, community leaders, librarians and ordinary people just trying to live on their land. “I showed up and listened like Muriel Rukeyser in 1936 investigating the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster, and I also wrote from research and found texts or transcripts, as poet Charles Reznikoff once worked from court testimonies” (xxiii). In some cases, when talking with individual members of a citizens group, Kasdorf would explain that she was writing about fracking and the effects of oil and gas extraction and ask to transcribe their experiences in their own words, then craft a monologue and when possible go back to the speaker and read the result to ensure it had actually captured those words.

“I’m trying to capture a moment in history,” she told me, “with an emphasis on facts. I see this as a kind of intervention into a polarized public debate, using the tool of poetry, which is what I know how to do.”

Rosa Furneaux, writing about Shale Play in Mother Jones, September 2018, says: “Kasdorf explores the nuances and tensions of her home state without allowing any one perspective to dominate.” And that may be true. I didn’t count or quantify the number of words or pages given to text and photos that came down “for” or “against” the oil and gas extraction industry. I do know that what resonated with me most were the words of people who I know were very like my friend Hazel – in poems such as “A Mother Near the West Virginia Line Considers the Public Health” and “Along Hope Hollow Road, a Grandma Talks on the Phone” and “Notes from the Zoning Hearing Board re Springhill #2 Compressor Station, German Township, Fayette County, Zoned A-1, Agricultural Rural” (which is exactly what the title says). These are the people whom those (generally men, generally white) with power tend to overlook or ignore, the ones who can least afford to pay the highest price, yet consistently do.

Kasdorf told me about the first reading she gave from Shale Play after its publication, when she and Rubin traveled to the Coal and Coke Heritage Center in Uniontown, Fayette County, Pennsylvania, a museum located in the basement of the library on the Penn State Fayette campus. The poems I referenced above all came from Kasdorf’s time spent with a citizens group from Fayette County.

“I sent postcards to invite them to the meeting, and they all came. There was a big reception organized by the [Heritage Center] archivist. Steven gave them photos, I gave them books, they bought books for their [local] public libraries.

“It wasn’t heartbreaking to make [Shale Play],” she says. “Making a poem is a positive, constructive thing – capturing these voices that are strong and smart but you’re not going to hear on the news.

“What’s heartbreaking is reading [from the book] and looking out at those devastated faces, sold out by the state government with the help of academics.”

As Philip Metres writes, “The successful documentary poem withstands the pressure of reality to remain a poem in its own right: its language and form cannot be reduced to an ephemeral poster, ready made for its moment but headed for the recycling bin. While it may be that such poems will not ‘stand up’ in a court of law, they testify to the often unheard voices of people struggling to survive in the face of unspeakable violence.”

When I was in my late 20s, tramping the southeastern Kentucky mountains with Hazel King, learning about community organizing and people power and the truths of life in Appalachia that my own childhood there had never taught me, it would not have occurred to me that poetry could speak those same truths in the deep-rooted way Shale Play does. One of which is these: We are all connected through the environment we live in, and what we take from it, whether our hands ever touch an extraction tool or not.

Kasdorf writes in the final poem, “Among Landowners and Industrial Stakeholders, the Citizen with Too Much Memory Seeks Standing to Speak of Recent Events in Penn’s Woods” (note: “eating grass” refers to an earlier part of the poem that recounts the Mennonite Jacob Hochstetler’s escape from Indian captors in 1757, during which time he sometimes ate grass to survive):

At the end of Peight’s Lane, not far from where a horse-and-buggy accident killed
my grandmother in 1948, I spied a Texas Eastern Transmission sign.
This aluminum-sided shed is party to the fourth largest natural gas line in the nation,
which runs from the Gulf of Mexico to New York City. How did that pipe snake
in over Jack’s Mountain without my knowledge?

When they clear-cut the right-of-way to lay pipeline over Nittany Ridge in 2009,
gasmen left good lumber to rot, my handyman says. The Centre Relay Compressor Station
stands on a former cornfield in Pleasant Gap. The pipe runs past Weis Market, recently built
on a razed farm, and ends in gas storage fields at Leidy, under the Tamarack Swamp.
I, who have never eaten grass out of necessity, drive home and cook my groceries
on a gas stove. (97)

“I’m a Mennonite – I can’t understand anything first without understanding its history,” Kasdorf told me in our conversational interview. And so the poems in Shale Play pull in Kasdorf’s personal history as well as that of the state of Pennsylvania, the massacre of Mennonites who had taken Indian land, the coal and coke workers of the late 19th and first half of the 20th century who died in mine collapses and poisonous gas releases, the small farmers who never recovered from the 1980s economic crisis for whom oil leases mean keeping their farms, the pipeline protestors of the present day.

For Mennonites and other peace churches, Shale Play raises the question Sarah Balzer poses in her prize-winning 2018 C. Henry Smith Peace Oration contest speech: What does it mean to understand peace as more than the absence of war, more than refraining from physical violence – to see peace as care for the planet and all who inhabit it? To read the poems and look at the photos of Shale Play is to realize the complexity of American dependence on fossil fuels, the multiple sharp edges to “no dependence on foreign oil” and the complicity – and responsibility – of us all.

All numbered citations are from Shale Play.

Sources in addition to Shale Play

Julia Spicher Kasdorf, interview, Oct. 14, 2018, Bellefonte, Pa.

Muriel Rukeyser, The Book of the Dead. 2018 edition. Morgantown, W.Va.: West Virginia University Press.

Walter Kalaidjian, American Culture Between the Wars: Revisionary Modernism and Postmodern Critique. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, 162-63., accessed 3-22-19.

Catherine Venable Moore, “The Book of the Dead,” the “Introduction” to the 2018 West Virginia University Press edition of The Book of the Dead by Muriel Rukeyser, first published in Oxford American – A Magazine of the South, Issue 94, Fall 2016.

Rosa Furneaux, “Haunting Poems and Photos from a State Torn by Fracking.” Mother Jones (online), Sept. 8, 2018., accessed 9-11-18.

Philip Metres, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy – The poet as journalist, historian, agitator,” Poetry Magazine,, accessed 3-22-19