Working the Tar House: A Steel Mill Poem



All day you sit with the pumps
and smell the tar, hot tar on its way
to the power station’s boilers.

Some days they burn gas.
Then if it’s warm you leave
a single pump idling
and sit outside in the shade
of the two-story tar tank.

You set your hard hat on the concrete
and watch smoke trail from the stacks
or stare at the blast furnace lights.

In winter you stay inside.
Tar leaks over everything.
It runs out hot and fluid,
then hardens to asphalt.

Tar on your hands,
tar on your blue-gray clothes,
bits of tar in your ham sandwiches.
Tar and layers of tar
on the pipes and pumps and floor.

Conversation is a call
to add or take off a pump.
Even with four pumps on,
there is little to do.

Each day, for each active pump,
you change the metal filter
that strains out the hard chunks.

First you hammer the valve lever
to divert the flow.
Then you unscrew the nuts
that hold down the filter lid.

You slide a pipe under the handle
and pry up the twenty-pound lid
until you break the tar’s seal.

When the seal breaks, the lid flies up,
snags on the bolts, and falls back down
with a clap and a spray of hot tar.

You raise the lid and set it off.
With a hook you lift out
the steel filter, dripping tar,
and carry it in a bucket
to a bubbling bath of solvent and steam.

You put a clean filter in
and bolt down the lid,
tightly, so the pressure won’t spray tar.

Your buddy has left five-gallon buckets
to fill up under leaks.
Slopping tar on your pants,
you haul them out to the chest-high hopper.

Or nights you dump them
in the waste pool of water and sludge,
the safety pit under the tar tank.

For hours you sit on a bucket
and watch the pressure gauge on the line.
You breathe the vapors and
you sweat among the pipes.

After work you go home with a smell
you can’t wash away.
It clings to you through all your days off.

Some nights you stop along the road
and vomit from the vapors that condense
as a black goo on the hairs of your nose.

Your skin itches where the tar
has soaked your clothes
and stained you black.


First published in New Letters.


Great Uncle Harve at Home - Kept by Viola Smetzer

Great Uncle Harve at Home

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