The American Poetry Journal
Book Review Special Feature ~ September 2017
The Creative Process, Duality, and its Opposites Rendered in Poems
Review by Theresa Senato Edwards
By Neil Aitken
80 pp. Sundress Publications, 2017.
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Neil Aitken’s second full-length book, Babbage’s Dream, is an inventive and meticulously thorough, poetic tribute that shares not only the genius of Charles Babbage, the man who invented the first mechanical programmable computer, but also Babbage’s emotions amid his calculated yet unpredictable life. There is more than research in this book that includes nine pages of helpful notes (you will not need but want to read all of them); there is simple yet pure gestures of love amid the complex workings of what it means to create. There is also a mix of lyrical movement and mathematical logic, which centers upon a vital theme, duality and the existence of opposites: the yes and no, something or nothing, death and life, absence and presence, “the reverie of making and unmaking” (“Begin” line 7).
We get a glimpse of Babbage’s inventive mind and empathetic nature in Aitken’s chapbook Leviathan (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015). However, the full force of the poet’s research and respect for a nineteenth-century visionary comes full circle in this collection. Unlike Leviathan, which is mainly written in couplets, Babbage’s Dream expands on the couplet form yet never veers too far from the binary code design concept. Couplets ground the narrative—simple in design—yet when strung together, looped, or elongated become like computer code, a language that yields creation yet can destroy it too.
In its unique control of logic and movement, Aitken's collection measures life, death, even love by duality and what it means to create as he connects these concepts to language, particularly programming code and the lyricism of poetry. In “Cast,” the idea of creation by “convert[ing] a variable from one type to another” is clear. And Aitken focuses on this dual progression and what is meant by the presence of loss in order to gain, “[h]ow each casting of a thing engenders the creation of another” (“Cast” 13). Like a casting of a fishing line or net into unknown waters, no true guarantee of what’s to come back, readers are convinced through Aitken’s speaker that what exists is “[t]his melancholy of form” (17).
Readers see this casting of language that Aitken shares in the shaping of each poem in this collection, how it clings to the duality of couplets, yet how it blossoms from “[t]he shape of nothing, how it is skinned and laid to rest” (18-19). Each poem is grounded in a sphere of research, the “line” or “net” ready for the casting; but what transforms in many of the poems is Aitken’s respect not only for Babbage but also for language, the known, and the importance that any form of language has on invention, the unknown.
This respect for opposites and language move the narrative arc along. In “Binary” Aitken uses a permutation of the couplet form, paralleling a column of ones and zeros (respective of binary language) with words, phrases, and sentences. His speaker continues to question the duality of opposites as Aitken gives readers an ingenious example of this, highlighting the bonds of absence and presence—nothing and something:
0000 : Absence stretched to extremity, nothingness in all quarters.
0001 : At the far reaches of the void, a glimmer.
0010 : How it doubles in size, moving closer, leaving a silence behind.
0011 : And how, out of that silence, an echo appears, an afterimage.
Here Aitken uses numbers to represent what is given yet abstract until translated (code) and words to share what is concrete yet interpretive (language). Readers see these distinct components needed for invention as the poem’s shape shows the ways in which opposites create symmetry, and the poem’s progression highlights the irony of absence and the ways in which that void before presence ignites creation. Aitken’s own bit of genius is unveiled in this pivotal poem as poem becomes code becomes poem again.
In fact, so many of the poems in this collection use the concept of invention to clarify the need for opposites as well as the realization that imagination surpasses most logic; and love exceeds all. Aitken shows the magnitude of these forces at work in “Babbage Descending into Mt. Vesuvius, 1828.” Even in his grief, Babbage measures opposites, focusing on the paradox of life and death. The physical description of the fiery life of the volcano is juxtaposed with the emotional grief of Babbage as he remembers his late wife, Georgiana; and the reality of her death adds a most crucial dimension to Aitken’s account of Babbage’s life.
Babbage knew how to calculate, how to be logical; he also knew how to love. This is evident as readers watch him descend into the volcano “[b]efore [him], a plain of fire and darkness spidering out / like the blood vessels of an eye revealed by artificial light” (Babbage Descending…” 5-7). Although Babbage’s fear and enthusiasm are present amid the violent presence of the earth, his thoughts of lost love overpower his descent as Aitken writes:
between the timed bursts of molten light and heat, the song that tears
through all the layers of earth, through so many moving parts.
How it beats like sorrow in a locked room, like the name of love
buried beneath a mountain of iron and clay. It’s a dark place here,
within your heart, at the end of a world emptying itself of meaning,
translating less into fire and ash. What is grief to a man surveying
a landscape that will never be here again? What is the void that burns
the sky with a yellowish light? Here, in such radiant absence,
you turn your eyes away, imagine again her hand, her face, her skin. ("Babbage Descending..." 13-22)
Through the reassurance of couplets, readers experience more than an intellectual’s fascination with science; readers understand how even though a man like Babbage comes so close to death, what demands his attention more is to imagine love and life. Aitken’s speaker and perhaps Aitken himself descend into the volcano with Babbage, where there is no room for sentimental overtones as sorrow is more than personified in this poem; sorrow is translation from void to light amid “such radiant absence,” a dichotomy that Babbage clings to as he encounters his grief and one that fuels the creative progress of this collection.
Aitken’s book luminously portrays Charles Babbage as a multifaceted personality, his temperament built upon a life of logic but also one of love and dreams. Readers see Babbage’s work, so steeped in machinery and math, yet also formed by his grasp of the importance of imagination and the appreciation of life—all life, even the programmable life of Leviathan, his machine. Aitken’s final poem, “Leviathan Speaks to Babbage at the End” (which also ends his chapbook, Leviathan), is well placed on both accounts as it takes the concept of duality to its simplest yet purest core: having machine “speak” to machine maker, especially when death is inevitable.
Using the persona poem, Aitken shares a crucial understanding of the creative process. He writes in the voice of Leviathan, “like the ocean of unthinking from which I first sprang, I sense you. / … Dear Babbage, creature born out of time, you dreamed me first, / before language, before there were words or names for what I am” (5, 15-16 italics mine). Ultimately, the machine, which functions upon logic, transforms; machine senses the importance of emotion, the dream, the imagination, as well as the absence of all of these.
From the book’s first poem appropriately titled “Begin” to its last, the essence of what Aitken set out to achieve in Babbage’s Dream comes full circle: to write a stunning, intelligent book of poems layered with movement—both historic and poetic—that defines the importance of duality and the creative process as that which “stirs each yes and no into a life / that will not be contained, that presses on, anxious— / always asking what is to be done, who will do it…?” (“Compile” 7-9). It is this “deep / reverie of making and unmaking” (“Begin” 7), the hearing “of an engine moving, … long before it appears” (11, 14-15) that underlies this collection. And throughout the book, Aitken guides his readers through a deep conversation with a creative, analytical mind that although so focused on machines, is truly human. “[T]he heavens opening wide their spiraling arms…while you [Babbage] stand on the threshold, believing” (28, 31), Aitken writes; and readers understand that Babbage himself, like so much of this book, goes beyond research, beyond numbers and logic, into belief.