And who was I
with my New York cawfee,
sticking in r’s where they’re not
or erasing them, as in Hedder Gablah
or Emmer—guess who—Bovary? So I kept
my face still, not wanting to be impolite
in case I hadn’t heard correctly, but then
he said it again—Far Tar.
He was talking about its steps
being so slicked with ladybugs,
the rangers had to post KEEP OFF,
so dangerous they were, and what
a shame, because this Far Tar was
the forest’s most popular attraction.
But by then, not grasping what mystery
he was going on about, I was gone,
slipped down the slide of Far Tar
and into the pitch of it. A tar baby
“pitched past pitch of grief,” as Hopkins said,
and beyond sense.
How far is Far Tar?
How many miles of asphalt does it take
to get there? Imagine a road
of good intentions, stretching farther,
further than Dorothy’s yellow brick
and tar black to boot. A road of no
return and less traveled by, but not
paved with grief or the sludge of sin
from Dante’s fifth bolgia, but just
going on and on, zigzagging mountains,
canyons, and herds of wild horses,
then up and down and across the frozen
steppes slippery with history thundering
across the Russias.
And what’s too
Far Tar? Hawthorne’s Major Molineux
tarred and feathered beyond recognition.
That’s Far Tar. Or what about
the British sailor lost to the opium dens
of Shanghai then dumped in the Whangpoo
whose venerable carp still haunt
the spot of his sinking—his last breath,
bubbles clinging to the weeds? So far
from afternoon tea, from Mother
and the playing fields, the mushy peas
of home, and brussel sprouts. I call that
a far Tar. A cold Tar.
Coal tar, obtained
from a distillation of bituminous coal,
used for the “heartbreak of psoriasis”
or explosives. Get that stuff over you
and that’s Far Tar. Or go to North Carolina,
where the Tar River rising in the north
flows a fair and far 215 miles south.
But that’s wrong, a misnaming
if there ever was one, for Graves says
tar means west, Ægean for the dying sun
grateful for a west to crawl into each night
on bloody knees. If so, Far Tar
is a synonym for tar doubled—Tartar.
Not a sauce for fish, but for a west
beyond the West, beyond the beyond
and over the edge, where the grinding gates
of Tartarus open for us all.
Who’d have thought
this man manning the desk at the visitor’s center
was a historian of such magnitude?
To speak of Far Tar and know it
for what it is—Argus-eyed and
foreboding, as if it rose in the midst
of the forest, tall as a fire tower,
to remind us of the long climb
and the steps made slick with ladybugs
who seem more and more like us, forgetting
the fiery house and the smell of children burning.
Previously published in the Gettysburg Review.