Machines, Mortality, and the Lyric Poem

by: Bethany Schultz Hurst

After my mother died, I kept reaching for my phone. I’d talked to her almost daily during the last years of her illness, when she’d been mostly housebound, watching Hallmark movies and BBC mysteries alongside my patient father and an ever-present small plate of toast she couldn’t bring herself to eat. Because I couldn’t reach her now, I found myself instead playing the matching game I’d downloaded in case I needed to occupy my young son on the flight back to Denver for the funeral. For brief periods, the game let me put my grief in the background and focus on the simple task of matching little clusters of fruit or flowers to earn points toward restoring a cartoon estate garden that had fallen into disrepair. The game offered order and arrangement, a small sense of accomplishment when other tasks (or even former pleasures, like reading) seemed to demand too much concentration.

The game’s aesthetics, I realized—the sprawling estate grounds, the unfailingly polite butler overseeing the restoration—were more my mother’s than my own. So sometimes rather than to escape my grief, I’d open the game to indulge in it. One particular tune on the pleasant/wistful soundtrack loop could provoke my weeping. Whenever I felt I was getting too far away from the loss of my mother in the mansion of my grief, I could listen for that melody to put me right back into its exact room.

But I think what I liked best was the control I had over time in that imaginary garden. I could enter an alternate world with a touch of a screen, could compress or elongate time’s passage. One day in the game’s narrative could stretch on for weeks, while a night passed in the short time it took the little butler avatar to carry his lantern through the darkness and over the threshold of the manor house door. My phone became a little technological device in which time seemed almost mythological under my arrangement—an attractive concept in the midst of my grief, when I wished for a way to stop time’s progression away from the point in which my mother was still alive.

When we are grieving, our minds are disappointing time machines, Matthew Salesses writes in his excellent essay “To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time.” We become machines that operate solely through memory when “memory is only another cause for mourning, [as it] does not change time, only reminds one that time has passed.” When faced with mourning and mortality, then, it makes sense that we may seek other, external technologies that imply some control over time. Thinking about this impulse, about my weird phone-game obsession, I’ve been drawn to poems like those by Kevin Young and B.H. Fairchild that evoke and enlist machines in the face of loss and mortality, that seek to circumvent, through technology, time’s progress. In the space of the lyric poem, which itself can be conceived of as outside of narrative time, these writers use machines that seem to suspend time, promising speakers the chance to arrange and order their interior experiences.

In Young’s “Elegy, Father’s Day,” for instance, the technology of airplane flight initially creates an ordering distance between the speaker and the world where his father has recently died. Suspended above the earth, the speaker seems to escape the grief so present in Young’s 2014 collection Book of Hours, where most of the first section’s poems are addressed in apostrophe to the lost father. Here, though, the title is the only direct reference to the father’s death, and the rest of the poem unfolds as a description of the speaker’s flight and the view of the earth from cruising altitude. The perspective afforded by the plane, where “the baseball diamonds look / even more beautiful,” seems consolatory. And that sense of solace seems directly connected to the distance from the earth, to the space the technology of flight has allowed: “Shine me like a light,” the speaker declares, and then “Ladies & Gentleman, we are flying / just above turbulence.” Even that swing back to the prosaic language of flight technology, in standalone statements like “100 knots,” seems to offer a space for the speaker to retreat from grief, and the poem’s couplets and single-line stanzas, along with the shorter, largely end-stopped lines, suggest a slowed passage of time.

But the poem ultimately cannot suspend time. As the flight necessarily approaches its destination—its descent—Young’s descriptions of the earth increasingly relate to death and mortality: “How many thousands / to fall” is the speaker’s comment on altitude, while the farmlands “blur like family plots.” Toward the poem’s close, the cities below are “bright / in the blinding dawn”—on the surface, an image of hope or renewal. But the speaker notes in the following line: “We make good time—” and with that acknowledgment comes a shift in imagery. The roads, earlier characterized as wriggling centipedes, become static “scars” and then “grids of an earth / we’ll too soon meet.” The three separate metaphors (centipedes, scars, grids) in this spare poem seem to indicate the speaker’s inability to arrange things adequately or permanently. When the plane lands, the speaker will be reunited fully with both his mourning and with his own mortality.

The plane’s shining ascent and inevitable descent—and the corresponding tension between timelessness and mortality—seem to hearken all the way back to the mythology of Icarus’s flight, as well as to our more contemporary poetic conceptions of flight. Muriel Rukeyser, in her 1935 Theory of Flight, for instance, points to the strange relationship between flight technology and our conception of time, characterizing flight as “intolerable contradiction.” Though flight is presented throughout her poem as a liberative contrast to mortal social and political experience, her preamble sees security in earth’s bonds and implies that flight technology could be interpreted as disruptive to time’s natural order. “Earth bind us close,” she beseeches, “and time / nor sky deride how violate our experiment.”

B.H. Fairchild’s “The Memory Palace,” the concluding poem of his 2004 collection Early Occult Memory Systems of the Lower Midwest, similarly evokes the mythological while intertwining machinery and time. The long prose poem is the speaker’s attempt to catalogue his vanishing past, populated with now-absent people, using his father’s darkened machine shop as a virtual warehouse for his memories. The poem’s setting is then both remembered and imagined, seemingly outside of chronology. However, the poem begins with an acknowledgment of time’s inexorability, similar to that of “Elegy, Father’s Day”: “It is dark but will soon be light.” The poem then races with “a certain urgency” to complete the memory inventory before daybreak. The speaker’s memories—dynamic scenes taking place in a variety of settings—are arranged inside the imagined, stilled machine shop, on “the backs of lathes and drill presses and milling machines.”

But I’m most interested in the section where the speaker attempts to place a memory of the actual machine shop within the imagined shop, resulting in an incongruity. Its equipment is now remembered as in motion and the attending men are characterized as “gods, Vulcans in black helmets” (as mythological creator-inventors, like Icarus’s father, Daedalus). The men’s immortal, godlike status seems to be dependent on their moving machinery and the “blaze of cutting torches.” But if time is stopped, such movement would not be possible. As the imagined and remembered spaces momentarily merge, the poem has set time in motion where it also wishes to suspend it.

David Baker, in “Lyric Poetry and the Problem of Time,” claims that one recurrent theme of the lyric poem is the dream to “halt time, as John Donne sings,” so that “‘death shall be no more.’” He points out the irony of that wish, though: “when time is rendered non-existent,” instead of creating immortality or eternity, “only death or obliteration can abide.”

And, accordingly, Fairchild’s passage of “gods and children,” in which he gestures toward timelessness, concludes with the “great yawn of the door, and then the going down, the rank earth smells, the swallowing it up.” It can’t be “always night,” and so the speaker must resume the race against the coming day. Still, daybreak represents an end to the poem’s suspended moment, when the machine shop’s door will “rumble open” and its work will begin again. At that point, the machines can no longer serve as static storage space for the past but must resume their intended, time-bound functions. At the poem’s close, in the blazing light of morning, the speaker seems to struggle with the slippery project of time and memory. The poem’s last phrase—“Still you do not know who you are, but here it is, try to remember, it is all beginning:”—and its inconclusive punctuation suggest a circular structure, looping the reader back to the poem’s start. Time cannot be halted, nor can the past be fixed against the progression of chronological time, just as the airplane in Young’s poem must eventually be bound back to earth, just as I have had to put down my phone and be present in the timeline where I move farther away from the world that had my mother in it.

But I think that Fairchild’s suggestion of a perpetual, looping structure reveals that the mechanism of the lyric poem itself may offer another kind of reprieve, a reason why we keep turning toward it in our mourning. “A poem is really a kind of machine,” Paul Valéry claims in “Poetry and Abstract Thought,” a kind of pendulum designed to swing between sensation and memory, “becom[ing] endlessly what it has just been.” Though a speaker may want to suspend time and its progression, the poem’s pendulum must swing back into the temporality of sensation. The lyric is not timeless, but it can repeat, as Jonathan Culler states in Theory of the Lyric, “a moment of time . . . every time the poem is read.” Further, that “moment of lyric articulation” implies that the moment has continual value to us now, perhaps more value than that of just memory alone. The lyric’s particular technology, its ability to reenact a temporal moment over and over, may offer us a way to arrange and order our perspectives and thus help us continually reckon with our losses, with our mortality.

Bethany Schultz Hurst is the author of Miss Lost Nation, winner of the Anhinga Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2015 and in journals such as Ecotone, The Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Narrative, and Ploughshares. She is a recent recipient of a literary arts fellowship through the Idaho Commission on the Arts and is an associate professor at Idaho State University

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