When you think of the machines,
forget their cool steel plates,
sharp cogs, inert metallic slabs,
the way they hold themselves calmly
to the floor. Consider instead
their fleshly attributes: the skin,
flaked and caked as dust around
each hinge, the layered fingerprints,
the grease of life, the thrust and suck
of energy constantly among us,
the shrapnel of screws unleashed
in shocked ecstatic break-outs.
Consider the beloved Heidelberg:
a press the size of a small room,
known for the keen hold
of its arms, the constancy
of its yield. This daily container
of miracles conferred on its minder
the same romance as a long-gone
steam-train driver. This
was a machine to slaver over:
down the years, modest men
have called it beautiful, sweetheart,
old girl, gorgeous, bitch and harpy.
Consider, now, the digital ones:
the serene precision of each chip
stimulated by a million billion
breaths working themselves out
through fingers and webcams,
milling our thoughts to the maximum
number of characters. We submit,
they return our perfected pixels,
we massage their content: their
display is our display. This, too,
is a space rife with vigour: the sighs
of requited and unwanted tensions.
How quickly though, devices
grow obsolete. Today, we caress
a screen directly till it flickers,
rouse the console solely
with our match-made voice.
But we’re always on the lookout
for a breakthrough. Next,
we want to reach inside them,
we want to wear them, lightly,
as our selves. Consider the machines,
and how sometimes we treat
our intimate engines of need.
Work and turn
As if the printing works were a chapel:
a covenant of stone, wood and light.
And the father of it all intones:
First and foremost, maintain
a quiet and thoughtful manner.
Though your hands are wrecked
blue-black with work and ink
with the simplest motion possible,
put each type quietly on the stick.
And when those you love come
to die, you’ll attend this noisy place,
take up your tools and wait
for the work to take you,
while quiet and dust cover the stone.
(Quotes in italics are from ‘Practical Printing’ by John Southward, 1884.)
These things are not downloadable:
machine-oil air, grease-laden surfaces,
an acrid taste in the tea.
secreted debris of cut-offs, old leads,
cracked type, ink-caked snuff boxes.
the coat cupboard’s memories
of bowlers and pin-stripes.
filthy socks around corners
of metal cases to save hip chips.
the contents of unlabelled tins,
grimy bottled sediment.
joyous clatter of an ancient motor
succumbing to repair.
ugly hooks screwed into shelves,
tables’ mosaics of water rings.
dead flies in the lights, sealed-off
sockets black with prints.
rack beyond rack of type in the loft,
donated machines stuck out back.
the camera as big as a fridge
pointed at nothing.
Heidi is a creative writing coach and tutor based in East Anglia. She has worked in schools, museums, private companies and as a writer-in-residence. Her second collection, The Print Museum, is due out with Bloodaxe in May 2016. Her first, Electric Shadow (Bloodaxe, 2011) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize for Poetry. www.heidiwilliamsonpoet.com