Monthly Archives: May 2013

Making a Zeppelin

Then I picture myself among the airmen and mechanics,

imagesThe construction of a Zeppelin was an amazing undertaking, evocative both in terms of the scale of the thing and of its structure—the making of a complete skeleton over which a metallic skin would be stretched. In several of my poems, I bring up the interplay between our memories and our records. It’s interesting to me that photography has now existed long enough that there is often extensive documentation of times that we treat as bygone and mysterious, as they are when considered in terms of  human memory and experience. For example, in “Song: City, Mirror, Moon”, the second last poem in Zeppelin: “the coffee table book, Lost Landmarks of the City“. We quickly forget vanished buildings from the greatest cities, however monumental or important, to the point where the book that collects photographs of such places is a genre unto itself. In Crown and Ribs, the narrator of the poem “I’ve Found a Real City”, challenged as to his knowledge of the city (literally Chicago), claims in the end to know “everything”:

There are photographs of everything, every state of the city,
every vanished structure, photographs of the devastation the morning
after the city’s legendary calamity.

This poem is patterned in part after Milosz’s poem, “A Legend”:

Who knows the beginning? We live in this city
Without caring about its past

But we end up caring about the past, wishing to return to it, only to find, unlike those who went before us, that a growing portion of our past is there, detailed in a form, photography, that we acknowledge as a factual record. When I wrote about picturing myself among the airmen and mechanics, it was a creative, fanciful thought, as if such an experience was inaccessible except to imagination. Since then, partly through my search for that photo that first gave rise to this poem, I’ve found that we have easy access to a tremendous record of images of Zeppelins under construction, often eerily beautiful images. The images in the slideshow below are taken from an amazing page on the USS Akron at the French site La boite verte.

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Of course, there’s more than one way to make a Zeppelin.

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Howling Zeppelin

Listen to my conversation with Nancy Bullis about Zeppelin, including readings from the book, part of the May 7th, 2013 instalment of Nancy and Nik Beat‘s long running poetry and spoken word show, Howl, on CIUT 89.5FM, University of Toronto radio.

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What is Steampunk?

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its antique tones, its steampunk

I won’t compete here with other sources of general info about Steampunk. In brief, it is a sub-genre within science fiction, one that finds expression not only in literature, film and art, but also in a subculture and lifestyle. Its hallmark is the combination of futuristic and vintage elements: airships are a frequent reference.

You can follow the link above to learn more, which I recommend in the sense that the labyrinthine tracery of Steampunk’s many tendrils is part of what makes it a mot juste for me quite apart from the specifics of its style.

The term “steampunk” has a canonical moment of origin. Search and you’ll find it credited repeatedly to novelist K.W. Jeter, one of whose novels features H. G. Well’s Morlocks using his famous time machine to terrorize Victorian London.

Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.
—K.W. Jeter in a letter published in the April 1987 issue of Locus, a science fiction magazine
Steampunk is also thought to be a riff off the more familiar “cyberpunk”, a link supported by the influence of a 1990 novel co-written by cyberpunk hero William Gibson, in which Babbage’s speculative difference engine is realized bringing early onset to the information age.  (Babbage is also referenced in Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s book of poems, Mausoleum: 37 Ballads from the History of Progress.)
The word came info this poem late and not as a result of any passion for the genre. It sounds pleasant in conjunction with “surrealism” in the line, and the two terms expand on the charm of the image’s “antique tones” possibly representing “high” (surrealism) and “low” (steampunk) dimensions of such charm.
In looking into steampunk now, more closely than I ever did before, what strikes me is the “archeological” depth of the term. Gibson’s novel is from the nineties, but the term turns out to be coined in the eighties, but by an author one of whose quintessential works is from the late seventies, but it turns out that the early seventies featured works about alternative airships and chunnels. Perhaps Michael Moorcock, author of The Warlord of the Air (1971), also had seen the 1968 airship episode of Spiderman cartoon series (“Criminals in the Clouds”). But my father often told me about being fascinated in the early sixties by a movie based on the works of Jules Verne that began as an engraving that seemed to come to life (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne by Karel Zeman.)

In 1995, I flipped through a remainder bin at an art bookstore, a heap of handomely produced German pocket editions, picking out a selection of Albert Robida‘s illustrations. The picture at the beginning of this post is his. Robida meant nothing to me at the time except that I liked his work. Now it turns out he’s a touchstone for Steampunk. Affection for Robida takes right back to Jules Verne. (A more mainstream example of the same effect: Scorsese’s film Hugo, which has a Steampunk feel in the context of taking us right back to the reality of Melies’ time and of his inventions.)

When Heinrich Schliemann found the site of Troy, object of his lifelong quest, he immediately blasted to the bottom of the site through multiple layers of settlement, convinced that the earliest, deepest layer must be true. On a surface level, there’s much nostalgia in Zeppelin, in the introductory poem and throughout. And Steampunk is, in part, a nostalgic style. Going deeper, Steampunk seems to me to be one expression of a recurrent impulse, characteristic of many of my poems and characteristic of our time: the impulse to use our awareness of history to trace back to a place where we might find a lost turn toward a better, or at least more interesting, present.

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