Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE MACHINE, by WILFRID WILSON GIBSON



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THE MACHINE, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Since thursday he'd been working overtime
Last Line: As, hand in hand, they wandered through the night.
Subject(s): Labor & Laborers; Machinery & Machinists; Work; Workers


Since Thursday he'd been working overtime,
With only three short hours for food and sleep,
When no sleep came, because of the dull beat
Of his fagged brain; and he could scarcely eat.
And now, on Saturday, when he was free,
And all his fellows hurried home to tea,
He was so dazed that he could hardly keep
His hands from going through the pantomime
Of keeping-even sheets in his machine --
The sleek machine that, day and night,
Fed with paper, virgin white,
Through those glaring, flaring hours
In the incandescent light,
Printed children's picture-books --
Red and yellow, blue and green,
With sunny fields and running brooks,
Ships at sea, and golden sands,
Queer white towns in Eastern lands,
Tossing palms on coral strands --
Until at times the clank and whirr and click,
And shimmer of white paper turned him sick;
And though at first the colours made him glad,
They soon were dancing in his brain like mad;
And kept on flaring through his burning head:
Now, in a flash, the workshop, flaming red;
Now blazing green; now staring blue;
And then the yellow glow too well he knew:
Until the sleek machine, with roar and glare,
Began to take him in a dazzling snare;
When, fascinated, with a senseless stare,
It drew him slowly towards it, till his hair
Was caught betwixt the rollers; but his hand,
Almost before his brain could understand,
Had clutched the lever; and the wheels were stopped
Just in the nick of time; though now he dropped,
Half-senseless on the littered workshop floor:
And he'd lain dazed a minute there or more,
When his machine-girl helped him to a seat.
But soon again he was upon his feet,
And tending that unsatisfied machine;
And printing pictures, red and blue and green,
Until again the green and blue and red
Went jigging in a riot through his head;
And, wildest of the raging rout,
The blinding, screeching, racking yellow --
A crazy devil of a fellow --
O'er all the others seemed to shout.
For hands must not be idle when the year
Is getting through, and Christmas drawing near,
With piles on piles of picture-books to print
For people who spend money without stint:
And, while they're paying down their liberal gold,
Guess little what is bought, and what is sold.

But he, at last, was free till Monday, free
To sleep, to eat, to dream, to sulk, to walk,
To laugh, to sing, to whistle, or to talk...
If only, through his brain, unceasingly,
The wheels would not keep whirring, while the smell --
The oily smell of thick and sticky glaze
Clung to his nostrils, till 'twas hard to tell
If he were really out in the fresh air;
And still before his eyes, the blind, white glare,
And then the colours dancing in his head,
A maddening maze of yellow, blue and red.
So, on he wandered in a kind of daze,
Too racked with sleeplessness to think of bed
Save as a hell, where you must toss and toss,
With colours shooting in insane criss-cross
Before wide, prickling, gritty, sleepless eyes.

But, as he walked along the darkening street
Too tired to rest, and far too spent to eat,
The swish and patter of the passing feet,
The living, human murmur, and keen cries,
The deep, cool shadows of the coming night,
About quick-kindling jets of clustered light;
And the fresh breathing of the rain-washed air,
Brought something of sweet healing to his mind;
And, though he trailed along as if half-blind,
Yet often on the pavement he would stop
To gaze at goods displayed within a shop;
And wonder, in a dull and lifeless way,
What they had cost, and who'd the price to pay.

But those two kinds of shop which, as a boy,
Had been to him a never-failing joy,
The bookshop and the fruitshop, he passed by,
As if their colours seared his wincing eye;
For still he feared the yellow, blue and red
Would start that devils' dancing in his head.
And soon, through throngs of people almost gay
To be let loose from work, he pushed his way;
And ripples of their careless laughter stole
Like waves of cooling waters through his soul,
While sometimes he would lift his aching eyes,
And see a child's face, flushed with proud surprise,
As, gripping both its parents' hands quite tight,
It found itself in fairylands of light,
Walking with grown-up people through the night:
Then, turning, with a shudder he would see
Poor painted faces, leering frightfully,
And so drop back from heaven again to hell.

And then, somehow, though how he scarce could tell,
He found that he was walking through the throng,
Quite happy, with a young girl at his side --
A young girl apple-cheeked and eager-eyed;
And her frank, friendly chatter seemed a song
To him, who ne'er till now had heard life sing.
And youth within him kindled quick and strong,
As he drank in that careless chattering.
She told him how just lately she had come
From some far Northern Isle to earn her bread;
And in a stuffy office all day long,
In shiny ledgers, with a splitting head,
She added dazzling figures till they danced,
And tied themselves in wriggling knots, and pranced,
And scrambled helter-skelter o'er the page:
And though it seemed already quite an age
Since she had left her home, from end to end
Of this big town she had not any friend:
At times she almost dreaded she'd go dumb,
With not a soul to speak to; for, at home
In her own Island, she knew every one...
No strangers there! save when the tinkers came,
With pots and pans a-glinting in the sun --
You saw the tin far off, like glancing flame,
As all about the Island they would roam....

Then, of themselves at home, there were six brothers,
Five sisters, with herself, besides the others --
Two homeless babes, whom, having last their mothers,
Her mother'd taken in among her own...
And she in all her life had hardly known
Her mother with no baby at her breast...
She'd always sing to hush them all to sleep;
And sang, too, for the dancing, sang to keep
The feet in time and tune; and still sang best,
Clean best of all the singers of the Isle.
And as she talked of home, he saw her smile,
With happy, far-off gaze; and then as though
In wonder how she'd come to chatter so
To this pale, grave-eyed boy, she paused, half shy;
And then she laughed, with laughter clear and true;
And looked into his eyes; and he laughed too,
And they were happy, hardly knowing why.

And now he told her of his life, and how
He too had been nigh friendless, until now.
And soon he talked to her about his work;
But when he spoke of it, as with a jerk,
The light dropped from his eyes. He seemed to slip
Once more in the machine's relentless grip;
And hear again the clank and whirr and click;
And see the dancing colours and the glare;
Until his dizzy brain again turned sick:
And seeing him look round with vacant air,
Fierce pity cut her to the very quick;
And as her eyes with keen distress were filled,
She touched his hand; and soon her kind touch stilled
The agony: and so, to bring him ease,
She told more of that Isle in Northern seas,
Where she was born, and of the folks at home:
And how, all night, you heard the wash of foam...
Sometimes, on stormy nights, against the pane
The sousing spray would rattle just like rain;
And oft the high-tides scoured the threshold clean...

And as she talked, he saw the sea-light glint
In her dark eyes: and then the sleek machine
Lost hold on him at last; and ceased to print:
And in his eyes there sprang a kindred light,
As, hand in hand, they wandered through the night.





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