Neil Aitken’s “Leviathan” (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2016) has an intriguing focus. This poetry chapbook is about Charles Babbage, considered by many to be the father of the computer for the work he did with his analytical engine. I bought this book because, as a software developer myself, I found the subject interesting, even though I knew relatively little about Babbage. “Leviathan” was a more than pleasant surprise.
Babbage was a scientist and mathematician. He saw the world through his calculations. On the other hand, he loved his wife and children. He outlived his wife and four of his children. The push-pull between an analytical, scientific approach to the universe and the needs of, and desire for, human connection is a struggle that is shown at a deep level. It is a conflict that was strong in Babbage but is not unknown in today. This is from the first poem in the collection, “Cast.”
“Just as the compiler now ponders like a god at judgment, weighing
each line of code with what it means or fails to mean.
How each casting of a thing engenders the creation of another.
Nothing is ever the same after translation, after the name
has been hefted, then posited to the waves. The dark world dimming
in its simple downward trajectory of terms, the endless run of zeroes
widening back to the farthest shores. This melancholy of form.
To be. To become. The shape of nothing, how it is skinned
and laid to rest. In the hour of our words and their departures,
we are captive here to whatever comes, whatever returns,
be it beauty or love, or the unfurled wings of their manifold ruin.”
Aitken touches upon the highlights of Babbage’s life, meeting his wife, her death, and other events, as well as his meeting with Ada Lovelace. Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, was the one to recognize the potential of Babbage’s analytic engine and is considered the first computer programmer. This is from “Babbage Circumnavigating the Room, Encounters Ada, 1833.”
“…And now, three-quarters of the way
around this milling mass, you find Lady Byron again, and the girl who asks
the most remarkable questions. Who stops you with a calculated word.
In her eye, the same fire as yours. The same urgency to be understood.
How is it that the poet’s daughter is so attuned to number, to the secret language
of order, the unheard symphony of the machine you have been composing
in your mind all these years? How is it that you know instantly that in her
beats the same heart of pain, the same proclivity for loss and disaster?”
All of the poems are written in couplets, some with a single line to finish. The lines are relatively long and it seems to give the words room to maneuver, allows the reader time to ponder Babbage and his dream. It’s masterfully done. I highly recommend this chapbook.