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Slow Violence in Verse (Sarah Todd)

November 19, 2009

Yesterday’s discussion on slow violence in the aftermath of environmental disasters like Chernobyl and Bhopal reminded me of the poem “Tar” by C.K. Williams. Rob Nixon defines slow violence as the unspectacular, long-term effects caused by environmental catastrophe — diseases caused by radiation, contaminated drinking water, and other invisible poisons. Because this kind of violence is often initially undetectable to the human eye, and because its effects become apparent over time rather than right away, those impacted by the catastrophe may experience an anticipatory and undefined form of fear in its aftermath. Williams’ poem, set on the morning after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979, captures this feeling of foreboding.

The speaker watches roofers “as they hack away the leaden layers of asbestos paper and disassemble / the disintegrating drains,” wondering whether to evacuate, what to believe, and how much information he really wants to know. Watching the workmen doesn’t take his mind off the meltdown; aware now of how fragile his safety is, he perceives danger in the asbestos, the “malignant smoke” pouring from a furnace, the “dark, Dantean broth” of asphalt. Risk is everywhere, and future generations “hysterically aswarm beneath an at / mosphere as unrelenting as rock” will experience not just risk but catastrophe as a constant. However, the poem concludes on a more ambiguous note: the “obscenities and hearts” already patterning the tar are reminders the suburban landscape, for good or ill–or both–is man-made.

The first morning of Three Mile Island: those first disquieting, uncertain,
          mystifying hours.
All morning a crew of workmen have been tearing the old decrepit roof
          off our building,
and all morning, trying to distract myself, I've been wandering out to
          watch them
as they hack away the leaden layers of asbestos paper and disassemble
          the disintegrating drains.
After half a night of listening to the news, wondering how to know a
          hundred miles downwind
if and when to make a run for it and where, then a coming bolt awake
          at seven
when the roofers we've been waiting for since winter sent their ladders
          shrieking up our wall,
we still know less than nothing: the utility company continues making
          little of the accident,
the slick federal spokesmen still have their evasions in some semblance
          of order.
Surely we suspect now we're being lied to, but in the meantime, there
          are the roofers,
setting winch-frames, sledging rounds of tar apart, and there I am, on
          the curb across, gawking.

I never realized what brutal work it is, how matter-of-factly and harrow-
          ingly dangerous.
The ladders flex and quiver, things skid from the edge, the materials are
          bulky and recalcitrant.
When the rusty, antique nails are levered out, their heads pull off; the
          underroofing crumbles.
Even the battered little furnace, roaring along as patient as a donkey,
          chokes and clogs,
a dense, malignant smoke shoots up, and someone has to fiddle with a
          cock, then hammer it,
before the gush and stench will deintensify, the dark, Dantean broth
          wearily subside.
In its crucible, the stuff looks bland, like licorice, spill it, though, on
          your boots or coveralls,
it sears, and everything is permeated with it, the furnace gunked with
          burst and half-burst bubbles,
the men themselves so completely slashed and mucked they seem almost
          from another realm, like trolls.
When they take their break, they leave their brooms standing at attention
          in the asphalt pails,
work gloves clinging like Br'er Rabbit to the bitten shafts, and they slouch
          along the precipitous lip,
the enormous sky behind them, the heavy noontime air alive with shim-
          mers and mirages.

Sometime in the afternoon I had to go inside: the advent of our vigil was
          upon us.
However much we didn't want to, however little we would do about it,
          we'd understood:
we were going to perish of all this, if not now, then soon, if not soon,
          then someday.
Someday, some final generation, hysterically aswarm beneath an at-
          mosphere as unrelenting as rock,
would rue us all, anathematize our earthly comforts, curse our surfeits
          and submissions.
I think I know, though I might rather not, why my roofers stay so clear
          to me and why the rest,
the terror of that time, the reflexive disbelief and distancing, all we should
          hold on to, dims so.
I remember the president in his absurd protective booties, looking
          absolutely unafraid, the fool.
I remember a woman on the front page glaring across the misty Sus-
          quehanna at those looming stacks.
But, more vividly, the men, silvered with glitter from the shingles, cling-
          ing like starlings beneath the eaves.
Even the leftover carats of tar in the gutter, so black they seemed to suck
          the light out of the air.
By nightfall kids had come across them: every sidewalk on the block was
          scribbled with obscenities and hearts.
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2 Comments leave one →
  1. voldfall2009 permalink
    November 23, 2009 5:54 pm

    Sarah, thanks for sharing this poem. These last two lines are particularly evocative for my project this term. I’m trying to seek sources of hope in texts and communities, despite the foreboding threat of environmental crisis. After the haunting descriptions of troll-like roofers with their balanced-in-the-bucket brooms and politicians with absurd protective booties, the defiant image of kids at nightfall leaving smeared, lewd messages and symbols of love is beautiful to me. These kids leave snatches of humanity for the morning to find. In the words of Animal, their kind of “fuck-all” attitude is refreshing; they don’t fall into a maze of questions, fearing whether or not tomorrow will come. Instead, they vandalize the sidewalks for the morning to find, denying society’s apocalyptic fears. These lines give me an odd inspiration. I’m reminded of the exchange between the student and the wise one:

    Student: “What would you do if you knew the world would end tomorrow?”

    Wise one: “I’d plant a tree.”

  2. emilymcg permalink
    November 30, 2009 5:37 pm

    Thanks Sarah! I’d been thinking about “slow violence” as well. When we first read the article I immediately thought of Karen Tei Yamashita’s _Tropic of Orange_. It’s an odd book with a bit of magical realism thrown in, where the latitudinal line, the Tropic of Cancer is literally dragged from Mexico across the border into the U.S. distorting time and space. At one point a old man is pulling a bus with hooks in the flesh of his back. His pain is immense, but his movements are too slow to be captured on film. His heroic strength goes unnoticed a representation of the slow violence done everyday to migrant workers and citizens of the global south.

    It’s interesting here that the focus is also on the normally invisible worker. “I never realized how brutal the work is.” The roofers certainly know how brutal it is. Hot tar on hot roofs in summer and hands that can freeze in the snow and burn in tar in winter. Is catastrophe then some sort of equalizer, at least in the eyes of the privileged?

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