Posts Tagged ‘Babbage’s Dream review

31
Jul
17

On Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.

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Neil Aitken's Babbage's DreamCharles Babbage was a mathematician, inventor, and even philosopher, but he is mostly known as “the father of the computer,” as he designed the first “analytical engine.” He is also the main focus of Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream (Sundress Publications, 2016). However, this is no biography, and it’s not a string of found poems. For Aitken, Babbage becomes not only a lens through which to examine Babbage’s emotions and an artist’s and scientist’s endeavors with creation, but the 56 pages of poems (two of which first appeared in Redactions: Poetry & Poetics) and nine pages of notes also tend toward ontology and explore what it is to be a struggling human.

The bulk of the book consists of long-lined, unrhymed couplets of lyric poems. But where a lyric poem uses the lyrical I to express a voice going through change, Aitken replaces the I with the Babbage persona and a near omniscient voice observing Babbage. Additionally, almost all the lines are marked with a caesura in the middle, sometimes two or three. For instance, the opening of “Babbage at His Desk, Enumerating the Known World” (23):

   From here, you lay bare the world
   table after table, column after column: 

   each thing known and numbered, counted
   like sparrows in their open graves, 

   the heartbeats of pigs, the staggered breathing
   of cattle in low country fields. Each significant. 

   A sign. A signature. The quality of ink
   spread on the printer’s block. Silk threads,

Those these lines are shorter than most, we can see/hear how the couplets move and also act like binaries. The lines move between velocity and pause, which is helpful in the longer lines. The caesura acts as a breathing fulcrum, as well as an experiential fulcrum. As for the binary action, the opening line presents an emotional abstraction that is countered in line two with the need to mathematically express or capture those emotions. Thus, line 1 –emotion / line 2 – math; and line 1 – abstraction / line 2 – categorization. Then, line three successfully quantifies the known, which is then countered in line four with an image, an emotional image of despair. Thus, line 3 – mathematical representation / line 4 – image representation; and line 3 –quantifiable / line 4 – inexpressible. There’s a back-and-forth movement between opposing experiential realms of perception and expression.

Sometimes the back-and-forth occurs in the same line, such as line six, where the period caesura acts as the fulcrum for the experiential shift. The couplets, the movements, mimetically rendering thoughts, feelings, actions a person moves through during moments of struggle, despair, joy, the ineffable, while allegorically paralleling how “binary numbers are stored in a digital computer as either absence or presence (nothing or something)” (“Notes” 71). Perhaps this can be all simplified as movement between conscious and unconscious. Not all the couplets behave this way, but many do.

In fact, there are five poems that experiment with form and structure, and four of those do so using computer programming language, such as C++. For example, “Comment” (46), which first appeared in Redactions, opens:

   At the company town hall meeting,                           // in the movie theater again
   we see the same slide. The financial gurus                // old plots, new faces

   spin the numbers again, a visual rhetoric                   // fake stars painted on the scene
   of gray bars rising adjacent to red. Someone             // dull plastic, factory-made

Here there are two columns. According to the notes, the poem “uses the // line notation from C++ to indicate that what follows is to be read by the human, but not the computer (i.e., everything after those marks is ignored by the compiler”) (72). The left column uses the first-person plural subjective “we” to attempt to objectively render a scene, while the right column has an unidentified speaker providing a judgmental assessment (or “comments”) of what is actually happening. So again, we have this fulcrum, but this time it hinges on the //. The left side is for the computer and is in a fairly objective and narrative language, while the right side is for the human and is in an unknown snarky, lyrical voice.

I think these binaries, these couplets exist because Babbage lives in two worlds: one of the computer or mechanical and one of the human, who experiences love and suffers great despair at the loss of his wife and daughter within a year’s time. In essence, the poems underscore a human’s conflict between mind and heart and the dialectical movements we encounter within ourselves each moment of the day as we endure what is here and what is gone, what is made and what is destroyed, and between maker and the maker’s creation. The language in Neil Aitken’s Babbage’s Dream is concise and specific as computer code and is rhythmically rigid, with the binary of iambs providing a steady backbeat. //

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Aitken, Neil. Babbage’s Dream. Knoxville, TN: Sundress Publications, 2016. Print.

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