Bad Machine  by  George Szirtes  Sheep Meadow Press (February 2013)  Reviewed by  Bethany W. Pope

Bad Machine
by George Szirtes
Sheep Meadow Press (February 2013)

Reviewed by Bethany W. Pope

Bad Machine, the latest by poet George Szirtes, is a deeply associative collection centered around an idea of borders. How do we distinguish, Szirtes asks, between the physical form, which passes away, and the spark—or, according to one poem, smoke—that sets us apart from other animals? The poet raises such pivotal questions throughout this magnificent book—and answers as bravely as he can, as anyone could, the urgency of the questions matched by the extreme high quality of his writing in both form and image.

Every poem in this collection is more than worth the time it takes to read it, which, in turn, is longer than the time it takes the eyes to pass over the words and the synapses to file them. The book is full of unanticipated repercussions that assemble as a sort of echo-chamber inside your head. There is a vast amount of material to consider here, so I will focus on three poems that reverberated plaintively within me for several days, and it is fair to say these three encompass the author’s themes.

The first is taken from Szirtes’ experimental “Postcard” series, a sequence of poems specializing in the blurring of borders. At first glance, their layout, which presents the reader with two distinct sections—an image and its reverse—would seem to enforce distinction. The reader might even believe that the two sections could be separated, could stand alone, but soon it becomes clear that these are more than two loosely joined halves: the forward and the reverse bleed into each other.

The first section of a poem entitled “Postcard: Untitled, Monument” is built in jagged six-line stanzas, each line beginning and ending at a separate point, the shape mimicking the dissolution found within the verses:

Look, they have collapsed. The monuments
have fallen one after the other. Mud
Covers them; guts and grit and blood,
so they're no longer granite but tents

Here is a poem about endings—of entire cultures, of relationships, though not all of them at once. The speaker appears to be of our time and culture, looking backwards at one that came before, yet the past and present overlap in a very physical way: the remnants of the monuments are something that the speaker can see and touch.

The second section of this poem (“Reverse Side”)delivers a solid block of text filling out twenty-four lines. It is a nearly perfect square of text dedicated to exploring the relationship of a couple in a park, the place where the remains of the past have ruptured and now push through the surface of the world that they know. They discuss the implacable nature of time and the inevitability of dissolution from the seeming safety of their place in time:

‘We are returning to nature.’ said one. ‘If these weeds
are anything to go by’. ‘And nature regenerates’, another responded.

These lines locate the speakers—and the seemingly fixed society they inhabit—at a place in the grand cycle, though only at the end of the poem is there a hint toward a coming phase. The text, which has hitherto been laid out as a near-perfect square begins to fracture ever so slightly. The spacing of the words change, the last line stutters, then abruptly halts:

never stopped growing. ‘We must hurry’, said one. ‘We cannot let the grass grow under our feet’. A small wind sprang up. ‘Now we'll be all right’, they said. ‘Now at last we can breathe’.

The stanzas that once seemed to be composed of two poems blur into one, a cycle complete.

“Postcard: Joke Shop” covers a single page. Beneath the title are two subtitles—“1 Joke Shop” and “2 Reverse Side”—each above a block of text that is approximately the same size as a novelty postcard you might pluck from a wire rack in your local convenience store.

In “Joke Shop,” a nostalgic voice speaks first, asking the reader if she remembers various goods traditionally sold in novelty stores. This voice then asks several additional questions, such as, “Do you remember Jumping Beans?” Another voice, made visibly separate through the use of italics, replies with another question, though of a very different kind: “Do you remember the cockach?

The first voice responds with nine more questions about much lighter memories, as though the speaker is trying to gloss over the other: "Do you remember Love Potion? Mystic Smoke and The Bloody Arm?" The second voice, gaining courage, fires six questions back, "Do you remember the ambiguities as well as the explosions? Do you remember the smells? Do you still have your eyes?" The brutality of the past cannot be buried by jokes.

The first section of the poem ends with a link to a fake web address:

There are three voices in the second half of “2 Reverse Side.” The voices interact in a way that looks, on the page, very similar to the pattern in the first section. A speaker displaying the slight morbidity found in highly romantic lovers, writes, "My darling when I finger your tiny bones and consider our fragility I cannot help wondering about our future."

His message is interrupted by another voice which shows kinship with the fearful italicized voice in the first half of the poem. This voice writes two sentences, 'hi sir, i want to learn about some little bombs for only to make a man scared sound and little explosion and also have a timer." This voice could easily be mistaken, at first glance, for a practical joker.

The first voice seizes the page again, for one sentence, "And I watch your eyes flicker, as mine too flicker" before romance is buried by more talk of bombs.

A third voice, also italicized, now replies to the first with nine questions, laid bare, stripped of all prankishness: “Do you want to put a hole in a concrete wall? Cutting through steel wall? Anti-personnel? Bring down an airplane in flight?” The romantic voice writes last, it cannot be buried, though its meaning can be altered by context: "Darling, I gently lick the stamp. I am delicate in my writing. My heart goes boom boom boom."

Like the imagined front of the postcard, the reverse also carries a web address (this one very real), which is the final word:

There are no such things as jokes in the land of association, though true to the established form of the author, there are plenty of puns.

The second poem comes from another sequence of three poems collectively titled “Canzone.” This is the first, “Canzone: The Small of the Back.” It begins with a reference to the Judeo-Christian God (“He who has numbered the hairs on your head...”) before leading into a stanza that describes a form of intimacy both infinite in detail and universal. This God knows you down to your cellular structure, but he also knows every flower in the field. This creates a strangely impersonal sort of intimacy.

The second stanza introduces a hypothetical doctor (“I see his ginger hair, his black bag”) who owns a very different, limited field of intimacy: the physical body.

His field
is comprehensible, part of a bigger field.
He copes and prescribes for a body of small

The doctor has stepped into the shadow of God, an echo, a lesser reflection.

In many ways the speaker of the poem (the “I”) is even smaller, admitting “My field/ of operation is narrow.” But the quality of intimacy the speaker shows makes this “I,” in its own way, closer to that of God: “I move to touch the small of your back/ where it narrows before widening.”

The speaker uncovers associations, memories that place the body it describes in a romantic, loving context:

So my hand knows your back.
It is marble and milk and summer and smooth grass.
We were stretched together, lying on the grass.
It was summer in London.

But while this is all human and beautiful in its way, the speaker nonetheless indicates a longing for a version of the God described, albeit a more manageable one:

That god knows the small of your back better than I do. He comprehends the small. We want him to number us, want someone who knows what number is and means, someone who knows the time.

The last stanzas pick up the root that blossoms in the third poem, the implacable nature of death, which is the reason that the immense God of the first stanza knows all of the flowers (“We know all flesh is grass./ We are handfuls of dust, breathing in dust”).

The third poem in the Canzone series is by far the most powerful, though without the others its effect is a diminished. “Canzone: Animal” presents us with the last moments of the life of the speaker’s father.

It begins with an image of departing (“I watch him blow/ out air that fills the room”). This air later becomes both dust and smoke, the flesh which congeals around and finally departs from bone.

The man is losing his humanity in increments, beginning significantly with the hands, “they are animal/ claws, old bones.” This is an image that leads, naturally enough, to the image of a thing consumed, “a plate of chicken bones,/ his fingers now very like chicken bones.”

Fire consumes, reducing the eaten to smoke and dust-ash. So death consumes, as well, leaving the gnawed clean skeleton.

The speaker questions the reality of what we are, if we are indeed anything. He states, “flesh and tissue and blood, pure animal/ whole animal, the spirit that we mean by animal,” the thing which, while it lives, cannot be dissected or reduced. If it is reduced, the layers peeled back, the life reveals something unquantifiable:

Then blow away the smoke
and see what remains, that
nothing after smoke,
that nothing hardly worth the reckoning,
that all the same we must be reckoning.

This is the spark, the spirit that cannot be understood by deconstruction. Prod too hard, and the cloud dissipates.

Death and fear are things that must be lived with:

listen out for bones
whispering in the flesh, their song like smoke,
their words those befitting the fleet animal
glimpsed in the distance, leaping into reckoning.

This book is full of such glimpses. I highly recommend it. Go out and pick a copy up, you will still be holding it long after you have laid the paper down.


Bethany W. Pope is an award-winning author of the LBA, and a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards. Her first poetry collection, A Radiance was published by Cultured Llama Press in June.