Nostalgia coerces us into hating our technology. That’s a trend that bleeds into poetry which manifests as a criticism of machinery. Most volumes dealing with this subject reaffirm the suspicion that somehow, technology’s rampant growth has made our world a cold one. We leave our reading chairs wishing for bygone days without the train, the phone, or the television.
When I picked up the thin, beige volume of William Heyen’s ‘XVII Machines’ I suspected to read, like always, about the curse that is our technocratic society. However, Heyen’s complicated view of machines provided a more thought provoking response to mechanic modernism.
Each of Heyen’s poems outlines a machine, like in his poem The Machine That Collects Butterflies or The Line. In these poems, he ascribes human characteristics to these inanimate objects. In the latter poem, the machine in question is unmistakably maternal. Heyen writes:
O, lovely mother
Of aluminum and oil,
Mane of levers
And eyes of wheel,
fingers of knives
and kiss of laser,
breath of fume,
embrace of wire,
build slowly while I sing this song.
The juxtaposition of the predominantly technical vocabulary (wire, fume, laser, etc) married with tender verbs and nouns like kiss, breath, and embrace provides the foundation for Heyen’s view of technology. He explores the dichotomy of these machines as agents of destruction (fingers of knives for example) but also as the foundation for growth and change, not dissimilar to the way moms encourage the progress of their children by destroying old habits in favor of prosperity.
In other poems in the collection, like The Machine That Mends Birds’ Nest, Heyen struggles with machine’s obsession with perfection (echoed in the deliberate follow up poem The Machine That Air Conditions the World). This poem, however, also brings up the potential that machines have for affection as they wander from one overlooked problem to the next, giving care where all human eyes overlooked.
For a subject so vehemently rallied against, Heyen’s ‘XVII Machines’ provides a fresh and thorough reflection on technology that makes readers distrust their idealized nostalgia.