Babbage Reflecting on the Cruelty of Man, 1835
You sit, transfixed by the accounts in the paper:
slaves bound in chains, the living manacled
to the dead in pairs. Their hair and skin filled
with the stench of blood and the mark of decay.
A ship of broken bones captured by strangers.
In every heart a scar the length of longing.
And the captain, clockwork cold, casting his cargo
into the sea like barrels of salt, kegs of rum,
unwilling to part with anything that might be set free.
How they descend, falling namelessly into the dark,
the open ocean, that giant grave, a merciful mother
with arms as wide as memory. How she takes them,
two by two, into her arms, and records it all.
You say, even after the last man is gone, erased
from this earth, the waves will carry the sins
of the murderers to the desolate shores,
ten thousand times over, every particle
of the air, of the earth, the bodies of the dead,
every atom of sorrow descending into the seas
will ring outward, till the towering judgments
of God come crashing down, till the sky breaks
and the fierce fires of hell rage in the place
where they once stood silently and did nothing.
Babbage Sending Messages to Ada, Now Gone, 1852
In the dim streets below, something dark eats away at the light,
consuming the gas lamps on every corner one by one
like a cancer till nothing is left, but absence and your lone beacon
set in this upper window, a clockwork curiosity you built last year
to signal the masses thronging their ways home from the Crystal Palace
and the Great Exhibition. The world gathered under a glass sky
and a mechanical earth—some strange new Eden full of wonder
and unknown futures. And your staccato flare, a repeated message,
a pulse of numbers, depths, wind changes. A code for passersby
to struggle through like a recurring cough from a worn body,
or the stubborn throb of pain below the belly that her doctors could not
decipher, except in long and short periods of blood and oblivion.
This year, you shine the light again, point it above the invisible barrier
that divides the living from the dead, and let your grief burn
in all its stuttering failure. You close your eyes and the world is gone,
forgotten, but her voice lingers in the turning of gears, a loose horse
whinnying in the darkened streets, the oil-black clouds shuttling
across the sky in some wild and unknown pattern.
Come back, we say, to the bit of code we've let loose in the dark,
and it returns like a half-feral cat laying down its prey on our front step.
In its mouth, a still-quivering squirrel. A sparrow its throat-crushed.
Or perhaps a few token feathers and some blood. Here, it seems to say.
Here, is what you really wanted. This small mass of tangled ends, frayed,
fragile like a blown egg, dyed crimson and pale, hollow inside.
Not everything that it returns is a name or a path home. Sometimes
all that remains is an old man who has spent his life building a machine
to calculate the probability that the dead will rise again, that the empty bed
will fill once more with the breathing form of love. Come back, he whispers,
but the world he returns to remains flush with the unwished for:
the fading back of the lover turned to dust and shadow, her face as still
and cold in memory as the morning he laid her in the iron earth,
or the geared machine itself, a giant ghost, a phantom of ink and words.
The hour is late, the years winding on. The graveyard is already full
with the names of his friends. He lights a candle for one and then another,
and another. The house brims with tiny fires. There are moths in every room.
No one waits at the door, but at the window, a constant beating of wings.
Of those machines
by which we produce power
it may be observed
that although they are to us
yet in regard to two
of the sources of this power—
the force of wind and water,
—we merely make use of bodies
in a state of motion
by nature we change
the directions of their movement
in order to render them
subservient to our purposes
but we neither add to nor diminish
the quantity of motion in existence
—Charles Babbage, On the Economy of
Machines and Manufactures (1832). p.17
// the mind of gears, the heart, a spring
// ever winding, a chorus of marionettes
// upon a stage, before the red curtain,
// a field of irises widening in the dark,
// whatever we can take in, whatever we process
// in the silent fist of memory, each
// flows through the invisible lines
// jangling our chains, lifting our wooden limbs
// animated by living fire, an ocean of regret
// we cannot return from, cannot cross
// in small steps, how we long to tear
// free from the needle bent toward home
// one tiny shred of night at a time
// the way we open our mouths to silence
// the stars and their brilliant ghosts,
// to fill the still numb void with words
Neil Aitken is the author of The Lost Country of Sight, winner of 2007 Philip Levine Prize, and the editor of Boxcar Poetry Review. He was born in Vancouver, British Columbia and raised in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and western United States and Canada. His poems have appeared in American Literary Review, The Collagist, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, and elsewhere. A former computer programmer, he is presently pursuing a PhD in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California.