Between Creator and Creature

Leviathan, by Neil Aitken
Hyacinth Girl Press, 2016

Babbage’s Dream by Neil Aitken
Sundress Publications, 2017

Reviewed by Dayna Patterson


Babbage's Dream coverMost people are familiar with Alan Turing (1912-1954). Thanks, in part, to the 2014 film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch, we’re aware of Turing’s contribution to computing and artificial intelligence development. I would wager, however, that few have heard of one of his predecessors, the brilliant English polymath Charles Babbage (1791-1871). Babbage, the inventor of the first mechanical computer, whose personal life was riddled with a series of crippling griefs, is the subject of Neil Aitken’s poetry chapbook Leviathan. Sundress Publications recently released an expanded version, the poetry collection Babbage’s Dream, which contains all eighteen of the poems in Leviathan, plus an additional thirty poems and elucidating endnotes.

Leviathan reads like a lyric biography with an arc that guides readers through the emotional peaks and ravines of Babbage’s life: meeting his future wife, Georgiana; his attempts at quantifying the world (“Every number a thing. Every thing a number.”); the deaths of his father, two children, and Georgiana in the same year; his subsequent breakdown; meeting Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada, a friend and important collaborator for his work; burying his seventeen-year-old daughter; and losing Ada to uterine cancer. I learned from the endnotes to Babbage’s Dream how Ada was aggressively steered towards mathematics and science by her mother, who wanted her daughter kept far away from the “wild devilry” of her father (BD 73). Thus, when she and Babbage met in 1833, Ada, in a sense, spoke his language. She immediately caught his vision, and he came to view her as a peer. Her death was another blow in an unrelenting series.

What surprised me about these poems was finding out that part of Babbage’s impulse to quantify was to know the unknowable, “to calculate the probability that the dead will rise again,” how he might recapture those he lost:

Come back, he whispers, but the world he returns to remains flush
with the unwished for: the fading back of the lover turned to dust

and shadow, her face as still and cold in memory as the morning
he laid her in the iron earth . . . . (L 16)

At the heart of Babbage’s story is a tragic narrative of negatives that refuse to add up, a groping for something in the gray haze of after.

Aitken’s background as a former computer games programmer and poet puts him in a unique position to write about Babbage’s ambitious undertaking. Some of the added poems found in Babbage’s Dream riff on computer terminology, words such as “Array,” “Loop,” and “Short,” which function as titles and launching coordinates for Aitken’s imaginative exploration. Most of these poems include definitional epigraphs that, for me, a person with limited computer knowledge, felt cryptic at first, but through Aitken’s poetic work, I could read as if from a deliberately altered angle. The terms take on new meanings through the energy of the poems. For example, in “Short” the epigraph reads “A fundamental type for declaring small integers,” which reads like a foreign tongue, but then I come across the lines:

the sound a shovelful of earth makes

as it falls into the darkness of the grave,
or what we say to whatever leaps across

the silence, that sparks brilliant in the tiniest
of containers we have laid in the earth. (BD 21)

“Short” may mean short life—an infant buried in the ground, or a “short” as a malfunction, a glitch in the Program of Life. Form also mirrors content in this poem with conspicuously “short” lines compared to Aitken’s long-lined couplets that dominate the collection.

Other added poems in Babbage’s Dream meditate on the relationship between creator and creature, the fine line between machine and mind. In several, the created speak back, sometimes accusatorily (as in “Frankenstein’s Creature Bids Farewell to Its Maker”), sometimes with a mixture of menace and aching tenderness. In the last poem, the personified mind of Babbage’s mechanical computer, which he referred to as “Leviathan,” speaks to Babbage on his deathbed:

You cannot even begin to see what lies ahead. How I will shed this form
that you conceived. How when I rise again, it will be in lightning and war,

in the service of blood and peace. How I will feast on many minds
and grow fat, multiplying like the beasts until the earth is filled with my kin.

Dear Babbage, creature born out of time, you dreamed me first,
before language, before there were words or names for what I am. (BD 66)

Throughout the collection, Aitken plays with binaries, the language of computers that manifests as ones and zeroes. Poems that aren’t written in couplets are sometimes split into two columns. One of my favorites is “Binary,” where Aitken translates the visual poetics of binary code into language:

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. (BD 35)

In addition to binary forms, the collection is ghosted with the binaries of presence and absence, living and dead, making and unmaking, creator and creature. Throughout, Aitken eloquently expresses Babbage’s questing after the “unanswerable questions” and the mixed legacy of creative effort:

. . . 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. (BD 15)

Aitken’s musical lines and striking imagery will loop through readers’ minds long afterwards, calling them to return, to immerse themselves again.

DAYNA PATTERSON is the Managing Editor of Bellingham Review, Poetry Editor for Exponent II Magazine, and Editor-in-Chief of Psaltery & Lyre. Her poetry has appeared in North American Review, The Fourth RiverLiterary Mama, Weave, Clover, and others.