Document Type



Documentary (or “reportage”) art has been widely studied as a social and political practice aligned with investigative or “muckraking” journalism. Likewise, the critical discussion of documentary poetry has emphasized its political, rather than its strictly literary, nature. Less, meanwhile, has been written about the documentary tendency in terms of its complex relationship to long-held traditions of poetry. This article calls attention to one site where documentary poetry is, rather than simply discarding poetry’s traditional conceits, actively incorporating them into its contemporary project. Mark Nowak’s 2009 book Coal Mountain Elementary documents industrial mining experiences for a public audience. As a work of political art, it serves an overt public function within a discursive environment in which truth is hidden and in need of being extracted, yet in doing so it evokes perhaps the most powerful formula available to the Western poetic tradition for revealing concealed information: the katabasis (Greek: κατάβασις, “descent”) literary trope. Nowak assembles documents that lead the reader underground into privatized, corporate-controlled spaces, enlisting katabatic imagery to indicate sites of human abuse in the coal extraction industry. Thus, CME redirects the katabasis topos from a visionary to a documentary program; literalizing and inverting the heroic formula, Nowak structures his political critique of today’s neoliberalized workplace as a subversion of Western poetic convention—an anti-katabasis. In this way the poet transforms the ancient narrative trope into an act of public investigation and a mode of historical description. Nowak’s reopening of the katabasis trope disrupts neoliberal narrative closures and indicates arenas of renewed literary heroism in contemporary society.