If toppling oil rigs and failed terrorist explosions tell us anything it's that our world is still largely mechanical, buffeted by gods both daemonic and heavenly. W.H. Auden, son of an engineer, understood this perfectly, though he deplored the effects. This week: seven poems that explore the phenomena of machines, three of my own selection and two each from John Pass and Zachariah Wells.
First, George Oppen, self described “passionate mechanic” and one of the leading Objectivist poets in the 1930s, spoke about his poem “Image of the Engine” as “the image of man as a machine, with a ghost.” For him, the poem explores how we see objects differently depending upon their changing states, in this instance an ordinary “lump of steel” that comes to life as a motor. This, in turn, calls into question our need for belief - driven by our capacity for belief, and our need to know and imagine the world.
Image of the Machine
Likely as not a ruined head gasket
Spitting at every power stroke, if not a crank shaft
Bearing knocking at the roots of the thing like a pile-driver:
A machine involved with itself, a concentrated
Hot lump of a machine
Geared in the loose mechanics of the world with the valves jumping
And the heavy frenzy of the pistons. When the thing stops,
Is stopped, with the last slow cough
In the manifold, the flywheel blundering
Against compression, stopping, finally
Stopped, compression leaking
From the idle cylinders will one imagine
Then because he can imagine
That squeezed from the cooling steel
There hovers in that moment, wraith-like and like a plume of steam, an aftermath,
A still and quiet angel of knowledge and of comprehension.
From The Materials (New Directions, 1962)
Completely at ease in the world of machines, Karen Solie recalls how her parents bought a giant tractor, the Buhler Versatile 2360. It was so big they had to construct another building in which to house it. For this year’s Canadian Griffin prize nominee, though, seeing ordinary objects through a different lens seems to be the main point of her poem “Tractor.” The “weirdness of the normal, “she says, “is constantly fascinating to me.”
More than a storey high and twice that long,
it looks igneous, the Buhler Versatile 2360,
possessed of the ecology of some hellacious
minor island on which options
are now standard. Cresting the sections
in a corona part dirt, part heat, it appears
risen full blown from our deeper needs,
aspirating its turbo-cooled air, articulated
and fully compatible. What used to take a week
it does in a day on approximately
a half mile to the gallon. It cost one hundred
fifty grand. We hope to own it outright by 2017.
Few things wrought by human hands
are more sublime than the Buhler Versatile 2360.
Across the road, a crew erects the floodlit
derricks of a Texan outfit whose presumptions
are consistently vindicated.
The ancient seabed will be fractured to 1,000 feet
by pressuring through a pipe literal tons
of a fluid — the constituents of which
are best left out of this —
to tap the sweet gas where it lies like the side
our bread is buttered on. The earth shakes
terribly then, dear Houston, dear parent
corporation, with its rebroken dead and freshly
killed, the air concussive, cardiac, irregular.
It silences the arguments of every living thing
and our minds in that time are not entirely elsewhere.
But I was speaking of the Buhler Versatile 2360,
Phase D! And how well recognized it is
among the classics: Wagner,
Steiger, International Harvester, John Deere, Case,
Minneapolis-Moline, Oliver, White, Allis-Chalmers,
Massey Ferguson, Ford, Rite, Rome.
One could say it manifests fate, cast
like a pearl around the grit of centuries. That,
in a sense, it’s always been with us,
the diesel smell of a foregone conclusion.
In times of doubt, we cast our eyes
upon the Buhler Versatile 2360
and are comforted. And when it breaks down, or thinks
itself in gear and won’t, for our own good, start,
it takes a guy out from the city at 60 bucks an hour,
plus travel and parts, to fix it.
From Pigeon (House of Anansi Press, 2010)
"The Way Things Work" is the first poem in Jorie Graham’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Dream of the Unified Field. Like Oppen, Graham’s preoccupation here is with our capacity for belief. What makes her poem even more interesting, though, is its resistance to the phenomenological perspective on objects, preferring to treat them as real rather than mere appearances to the mind.
The Way Things Work
is by admitting
or opening away.
This is the simplest form
of current: Blue
moving through blue;
blue through purple;
the objects of desire
opening upon themselves
without us; the objects of faith.
The way things work
is by solution,
resistance lessened or
increased and taken
The way things work
is that we finally believe
they are there,
common and able
to illustrate themselves.
Wheel, kinetic flow,
rising and falling water,
ingots, levers and keys,
I believe in you,
cylinder lock, pully,
lifting tackle and
crane lift your small head--
I believe in you--
your head is the horizon to
my hand. I believe
forever in the hooks.
The way things work
is that eventually
From The Dream of the Unified Field (Ecco Press, 1995)
John Pass has two lovely poems (one his own) about machines:
Great poems David. And so important, the machines in our lives and in the imaginations of our poets. Poetry’s hands-on mastery of language signals a keen affinity with tools and machinery of all sorts, too little acknowledged and honoured. A favourite of mine in the genre is Snyder’s "Axe Handles":
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in the stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—“
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”—in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
(from Axe Handles, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1983)
And I offer a poem of my own, a section of "Twinned Towers", for the grounding and lift serviceable machinery returns to us under duress:
Growl and rumble in the skyline’s hole
in flat light over the Hudson
of a world on hold, in waiting . . .
Not for survivors in their imminent tombs.
Not for the shamming Imam in his mountain.
Not for the CEO on his smug plush. (Not shovel
nor smart bomb nor markets collapsing can flush them . . .)
but for the rest of us
trapped in the dark of our devolution, in the dark
rain and stutter of the bombs on the other
side of the world, in the inarticulate
annihilation, retribution – for us
this heavy lifting, trucking, kneel and bow
of the earth-mover, shape-shifter, spirit
of the mass, and the derricks’ swinging benediction above
the work’s ascent by an anchored increment, just clear
of the girdered rubble. These durable materialists
are reaching for us in the subterrain, the unseen
where invisible trains link in their tunnels
and ground-water presses the dry-socket membranes
and millions of conversations sprint in the micro-filaments.
Where the gold is hidden, where the 18th century anchor unearthed
for the towers’ first foundation (at loose ends
in dry-dock three decades in the basement)
is newly burdened, embedded again
in more than bombast and stale air . . .
in ballast beneath our delusions
they grapple and winch and pray for us, our trusted
machines, our first-born prehensile mentalities.
Finally, here's Zachariah Wells:
Hi David. Very interesting post. In the spirit of John Pass's offering, I thought I'd send you two poems in which the poet is the "ghost in the machine." The first is Peter Trower's "Overhead Crane:
The second is one of my own, from my first book, dedicated to Trower:
FORKLIFT OPERATOR WANTED;
RECREATIONAL FACILITIES PROVIDED
for Peter Trower
At odd intervals when it’s all once
Again come to be too much—the cold
Endless dark hours, the neglect, the fuckups—
& I’m at the humming hydraulics
Of a sixteen tonne jouncing whore of a truck,
Keeping ‘er reined with steady sure-
Handed turns round untold millions of dollars
In planes—a lunatic flash on the verge
Of nervous crash, that diesel-burning urge
To plow full-tilt through the thin tin
Of a Boeing or Hawker, just to see once
How deep her steel forks would sink!
Management must have guessed this, must
Have planned it when the ’48
overshot the strip
Last December & they hauled its scrapped hull
Back to the ramp for me to punch holes in.
It’s Mother’s Day this Sunday. Share the video of Daisy Zamora reading her poem about mothers in "Great Poems" in the right hand column.