“Tar” is a poem divided into three stanzas, set around the poet’s own experience of the Three Mile Island nuclear-reactor accident. In March, 1979, this accident threw many people around the nation (and especially people in Pennsylvania, where the poet lived and where the reactor is located) into a state of alarm over the danger of a full-scale nuclear meltdown that would have unleashed a cloud of deadly radioactive gases over a wide area.
As the poem begins, the juxtaposition of the nuclear accident, mentioned in the first line, with the workmen who are mentioned in the second line seems incongruous, and, in fact, it seems to be this incongruity that has attracted C. K. Williams’s attention. He talks about wandering out to watch the men at work to distract himself from the news that he spent most of the night watching.
As the poem progresses in the second stanza, as the official denials of danger from the nuclear-reactor accident seem to him more confused and less trustworthy, and as he sees that the work the men do on his roof is “harrowingly dangerous,” watching the roofers and their work becomes not so much a way of avoiding thinking about the nuclear accident as a way of confronting it. That is, the dangerous work of reshingling his roof becomes a metaphor for the precariousness of living in the nuclear age.
By the third stanza, the events of this day have convinced him of the inevitability of a disastrous nuclear...
(The entire section is 454 words.)