Slow Violence in Verse (Sarah Todd)
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.