by AIDAN CHAFE
DEMOCRATICALLY APPLIED MACHINE
BURNABY REVIEWS NEWMARKET
Democratically Applied Machine
by ROBERT COLMAN
[Windsor: Palimpsest Press, 2020, SALE: $15.16]
In his third collection of poems, Democratically Applied Machine, Robert Colman explores industrial and domestic landscapes, as well as his personal identity, amid his father’s onset of Alzheimer’s dementia. Colman, a Newmarket-based writer, uses a variety of poetic forms: lyric, ekphrastic, narrative, erasure, prose, sonnet, found, cento and sestina. Where the more traditional sonnet and lyric bring out his best and most personal work, his centos (“Unemployed Hourly”, “Let Us Butt Heads, Love”, “Waking” and “Watching”) and found poems (“Part” and “Parts”) are effective in contributing to the main themes of machinery and manual labour.
The book begins with the ekphrastic piece “Middle Distance” after artist Gerhard Richter’s Landschaft bei Koblenz, which appropriately introduces the reader to recurring terrains, both industrial and urban, that serve as backdrops to explain the relationships that Colman has with his father and the skilled trades. In the third stanza, the speaker focuses on the hill where “you are both not far enough / and too close.” The hilltop spot is situated between dichotomous motifs of urban/rural and mechanical/ pastoral. For the speaker, the poem situates him somewhere on a spectrum between unsettling and precarious, yet also a position that feels contradictory. For how can the subject reconcile the idea that he is at once not far enough away from the “breath” of the city, and not close enough to unbridled nature (the “echo-edged trees”)? The speaker seems to admonish Richter for this “heaven of non-committal”, which he infers is a type of purgatory. The reader begins to understand that the collection is an autobiographical exploration for Colman, as the speaker is on a quest to explain who he is and where he’s from, by exploring the environments both he and his father inhabit.
Democratically Applied Machine is divided into four sections, or parts, labelled A, B, C and D. The first, ‘Metal’, includes a series of elegies for the manufacturing sector (“Where Did All the Job Shops Go?” “Ghosting the Assembly Line” and “Unemployed Hourly”). What used to be vibrant environments with humans engaging with tools and machinery is now being replaced by outsourcing, and improved technology: “The robots wave a greeting. / Hear the hum, secondhand vibrato accent / of the job shop floor”. Colman’s strengths lie in his ear for rhythm and eye for imagery: “A city-wide field of factories, / small warrens of good work.” The diction and sound in these poems bristle—“winding armatures,” “bead the flat weld”, and “ferrite chafing tight nodules”—evidence of Colman’s history working for trade publications in the manufacturing sector.
The second section, ‘Pull’, segues from the first and builds on this idea of loss and disappearance of trades jobs. In particular “After Lowry, After Cornish” makes it quite acute.
We are all walking away
without fibres to stitch up our lungs,
dust and lime a tickle of history.
The factories are condos now.
We know them to close the doors.
There’s a bittersweet recognition here in the realization of the adverse cardiovascular affects of working in the trades for a career, coupled with the thought of being out of work. Colman seems to be assembling his family’s history; by writing it down, he ensures it’s remembered.
The poem “Choosing Her Trade” brings to mind Kate Braid’s work in Covering Rough Ground and Turning Left to the Ladies: an homage to women in a world that’s often dominated by men.
Own wound two ways in elastics
At her wrist, she counts
Twelve slabs of sheetrock
That end in this, one nail,
Her index, marking an imperfection
She aches to fix.
Aches to own
The anaphoric use of the word “aches” in the second and third final lines perfectly accompany the end rhymes “fix” and “this”. The repetition of the word “own”, italicized at the beginning of the stanza, hints at the internalized inequality for women on the construction site. The ability to do the job well is a source of pride for the speaker, but also a sense of ownership. If only she could “own / Just this.” Colman is in control of both the image and the music these words create. His ear for the lyric and eye for the metaphor are on full display.
The third section, ‘Ruck’, includes several sonnets which are among the strongest in the collection. These poems are personal and reflect the speaker’s relationship with his father. “Son to Father” is a cleverly phrased poem using the metaphor of a marionette, puppet-as-son proxy, to explain the complexities of childhood and understanding oneself in relation to one’s father.
Problem is, I played by the book
and now I’m just marionetting my story:
nature, nurture, half life just as like,
but I follow string to elbow or knee—
The truth is we don’t know how much we linger in our parents shadows, or how to recognize the borders of where they end and we begin. Colman beautifully outlines this dilemma. In “Bone” we continue to see this trend, as the speaker’s frustration is on full display, when his father’s inability to effectively communicate with the speaker becomes revelatory.
When everything he said was dismissive
I saw the disappearance of us
as foreign enemy or phantom limb,
In “Rec Room” we get a distilled portrait of his father and a drinking buddy who appear as “laughter of red face and teeth”. Framing from the (presumptively) adolescent point of view underscores the speaker’s insightful position to point out the ironies of the adult world. When Colman describes Dave Allen, his father’s drinking buddy, we are shown a modern day Falstaff:
cheerleader for the fallen man
Dave talks about women
but he is pre-woman, all priest,
the gag of incompetence
The answers to the questions the speaker has about the kind of man his father is become clearer with every poem. In the reversal that is “Father to Son”, we see the father figure as speaker who pens an unwritten letter revealing, “in my head, mid-Atlantic, I feared my self and my loss. What is home?” Fear and fragility are at the epicentre of this unwritten letter, somehow making for a less intimate medium compared to what could have been an honest, open conversation between father and son.
The last section, ‘Hold’, revolves around a trip to England the speaker takes with his ailing father. At this point, the answers to the speaker’s questions about his old man begin to muddy. While this should be where the speaker begins to better understand his father, the complexities of his father’s dementia and time away from England fog his own memory. We begin with “The Painting” where the father is explaining to the speaker the scene, but he grows tired and as a result the final line is of the speaker’s frustrating refrain, “Dad, describe it to me.” Each of the poems in this section focus on a location the speaker travels to with his father. In “Slipping Time” we follow the pair biking through the rustic hills and valleys of England: High Peak, Saltersford and Stonehenge. Colman paints the scenery with precision where circumstances are bittersweet as the speaker’s father “now threatens to forget daily”. As these scenes detailing the last adventure with his father make up this final section, the strength in Colman’s writing, like all good journalists, is in the telling – the truthful representation of experience. Despite the risk of courting pathos, Colman sticks to the details, allowing us to authentically feel the struggle alongside him. Democratically Applied Machine is a personal and humanizing collection—a series of elegies for both a father and the skilled trades.
AIDAN CHAFE is the author of Short Histories of Light that was nominated for the 2019 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. His second collection, Gospel Drunk, is forthcoming from University of Alberta Press. He lives on unceded Coast Salish land (Burnaby, BC).