Review | Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World: From J.G. Heck’s
Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science, by Joshua Poteat
The University of Georgia Press, 2009
In the nineteenth century, scientists observed, measured, and manipulated things that, hitherto, had been mysteries. They dragged even the human psyche from darkness. God, hope for the afterlife: how could these endure in the increasingly determined, mechanical universe? Joshua Poteat characterizes this time as “inclined to tragedy,” in his second book, Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World. Informed by the spiritual anxiety of the nineteenth century, the book offers us a phantasmagorical glimpse into our recent past and, ultimately, ourselves.
Subtitled From J.G. Heck’s Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science, the book takes nineteenth-century German illustrator J.G. Heck as the basis for a scientifically truth-seeking central persona whose reckoning with the world and its apparent godlessness is provoked by weird encounters. In “Apparatus for determining the specific heat of bodies,” the persona-speaker tells of kissing a blind girl. He kissed her eyes, and she “saw,” as though by some second sight, “the hidden dwarf cancer” in his throat. Thereafter, she refused his kisses and left him. Alone, he stood at the waterway, and it became a landscape of sickness as he “watched // the consumptive girls with little sparrow breasts // rinsing out their lungs.” At the close of the poem, the speaker looks away from the past and to the future, asking himself what remains for him if even the blind cannot love him. Believing himself doomed to die alone, he despairs:
Let the blind bury the blind.
I now ask the dead to take me with them.
I have had enough of this body, bleb and weal,
weak therefore worthless.
The speaker in nearly all of the poems in Poteat’s book seems spurned by and thrust out of the world. His interactions with others are only remembered, as though he were now living a life of solitude in his final years. Given that the titles of the poems derive from the captions in the actual Pictorial Archive by J.G. Heck, one might visualize the speaker alone in a workshop, hunched over engravings and brooding on personal matters brought to mind by the many paraphernalia and discoveries of science that are the subjects of these illustrations.
And might a lonely man not take some comfort in surrounding himself with such subjects? Yes, science is a pursuit of incontrovertible, changeless truth, the eternal, but this pursuit, like the speaker’s puzzling-out of his disappointing history, may ultimately bring pain, too. Poteat’s book opens with an epigraph by Fernando Pessoa: “Science is nothing more than a children’s game at dusk, / a desire to catch the shadows of birds and stop / the shadows of grass in the wind.” Science is folly, the lines suggest, and those who believe that the eternal is within its grasp will sooner or later find their illusions shattered.
The speaker of Poteat’s book suffers much violence to his beliefs as he probes his memories, and from these assaults, the book builds its pathos and urgency. In “Illustrating the theory of twilight,” the speaker recalls “the night the dogs found / the wild boar, half-dead from a cancer, // and brought its head back to the yards.” Their tameness and familiarity as domestic animals had disappeared; killing had reduced them to savagery. They engaged, he thinks, almost in a mystery, with the boar a sacrifice and its head an object of spiritual power, making a mockery of faith:
They were wild with . . . blood,
as if they had seen the one true vision
of light that comes after an animal
is slaughtered in its sickness.
This is what I call the visible evidence
of the soul, and do not try to convince me
that God has his way with us.
Could a mercy killing really be nothing more than an orgy of death, and could the idea of the soul really be founded on nothing more than the feeling of power arising from holding another’s life in one’s hands?
Throughout the book, the speaker expresses a fear that the soul does not exist and that life is thus defined, ruled, entirely by the natural processes of decay and death. The diseased populate the pages, and the speaker continually returns to the problem of killing the sick so that the well may live. If all living things are born into mortality and therefore are sick to some degree ab initio, then killing the sick, as the speaker considers in “Illustrating the destroyers,” may be merely an illusory and selfish victory over this condition:
When the larvae hatched in the birches,
all black hunger and ruinous,
the leaves emptied themselves
and gave us branches so clean
the caterpillars grew, clinging through
. . .
what we could to keep the world ours.
Those who burned the infested trees burned the trees less for the sake of any trees that were not yet infested than for the sake of believing themselves masters over entropy. And trees, once burned, are gone from the world forever, regardless of the regrets of their destroyers; even “God’s plan cannot restore the decaying groves of fire.” Death is an unbridgeable gulf, the speaker thinks repeatedly, and if the dead were to survive in some form in their realm, then whatever they wanted or needed would be “beyond our mercy” or concern.
But as the book progresses, the speaker also discovers a duty for himself; his pursuit of truth carries him beyond pain and out of his often grim circumstances, into new hope that surprises and pleases us. In “Illustrating the manner of communicating vibrations to the air,” he recalls a nest of hornets that had grown “alabaster / with . . . sickness” under the bark of a chestnut tree. The hornets would die, and so might the tree if the branch were not removed. Of course, the tree might die regardless, and like any tree, it would necessarily die someday. Therefore, the speaker, at the time of discovering this sickness, saw no reason to attempt to save the tree. “What can one do,” he wondered, “but let the world happen?” But while he lay in bed, he listened to the sounds of life continuing despite entropy, “the eaves // filling with moss” and “the swallows awake always,” and he heard “God with them.” All living things enjoyed life, he thought: “To awake alive is the greatest thing!” And he went to tend to the tree, whether he was too late to save it or not. Although death and decay may define the world, the speaker sees himself as employed in perpetually renewing an earthly semblance of eternity by keeping the living alive as long and as well as possible and, when they die, alive in memory, too:
I do not mind it here, working the land
God gave to the beasts,
the land we took for our own.
It is ours, can’t you see?
The graves are named carefully,
the graves are soft with our care.
God’s realm, whatever is on the other side of death, may be unknowable in life, but we cannot discount it either, the speaker might say. Death is the path of destiny. “I’ve never been alive, I mean fully, as a barn becomes itself as it burns,” the speaker says in “Illustrating the thirteen transits of Mercury in the nineteenth century,” the prose sequence at the center of the book. This describes a qualified faith, but a faith all the same.
The book closes with an appendix of erased poems, copies of poems from earlier in the book with most of their content erased so that they become only a handful of words scattered across the page. These are simultaneously a fading out, a decay, of the book—thus a memento mori for us readers—and also a collection of thoughts that seem almost to have been hidden in the source poems. “Illustrating the seventeenth century” had ended on a note of finality, suggesting the gulf between life and afterlife: “The dead have a name for it, // but they aren’t talking. // Given’s as good as gone.” The erased version, however, reveals the kernel of optimism in these lines: “The dead / aren’t / gone.” The epigraph of “Apparatus for determining the specific heat of bodies” had read, “In love the secret is the self, in death the echo of the secret,” but this portrait of death as loveless and selfless, as perhaps an utter extinction, becomes, in the erased “for specific bodies,” a more provocative and perhaps hopeful formula: “The secret is death.”
Poteat’s book, a fascinating and ambitious project, succeeds—arguably like the best literature—in not only catching hold of us through a beautiful and skillful use of language, but through depicting, even creating, a possibility of redemption. This is the speaker’s possibility, of course; it may belong to no one else. He lived, if he lived at all, a long time ago, and he is at least partly a fiction. But we care for him, and as he kept the dead alive in memory, we tend his grave, this book, and think of where our own lives will lead us.