"The Machine"

A weekly poem, read by the author.
June 4 2002 12:11 PM

The Machine

Listen to Carol Muske-Dukes reading this poem. Night after night when he was young, he told me he dreamed the same dream. It was not a simple dream, the machine.

At first it half-coalesced as a drill press
or lathe, a thing that controlled the direction
of force to alter shape. Parts turned: ratchets

gears, bearings. The machine in his troubled sleep
was a series of perfectable gestures in the spirit of
the cam-shaft: a projection on a rotating part

shaped to engender motion—but was not erotic exactly.
The machine was the point at which the lever was placed
to get purchase, the fulcrum, the means by which influence

is brought to bear, the chime of iron against iron in a holding rack,
power against resistance. What was its purpose as he perfected
it each night? Not to assemble or sort or tattoo patterns on metal.

It shimmered, a thousand lit pins, a system—a series of moving
parts that would never still, synchronous. What would it
replace? The erratic—manufactured as a strap—a father lashing

a son into a place of dark stasis. He stood up to audition and he had
the words at last, he'd gotten his mind round the mechanism, the facets,
the repetitive force of illusion, the jeweled speeches kept in memory

as he hammered the boards of the stage, hauled flats, swung one-handed
from the flies to set lights. Sometimes a person wakes up, sees he's meant
for another life—the snap-clasp of the theater trunk, the high-voltage moving spot—

commoner, lord, poet—the armored breastplate. Sometimes he looks in
the mirror and sees no self but the invention, fathomable, fashioned—
the shapes of Art, all makeable—as in the machine, his machine,
the machine that made him.

Carol Muske-Dukes is professor of creative writing and English at USC and the author of eight books of poems, most recently Twin Cities.