The Mechanics of Love, Loss, and Greatness: A Review of Neil Aitken’s Leviathan

Neil Aitken’s new chapbook Leviathan (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2016) guides the reader through the life, loves, and losses of Charles Babbage, a nineteenth-century mathematician and inventor remembered as the father of the computer. The poems trace the milestones of his life, and after his death, Babbage is eulogized by his great creation, his Leviathan. Aitken’s collection illuminates the heartbreak of ambition when it outsizes one lifetime.

The poem “Void” might best exemplify the aim of this collection. By combining quotes from Babbage’s book On the Economy of Machines and Manufactures with Aitken’s words, we get a glimpse at Babbage’s methodical mind, while the poem’s formal considerations echo the fact that Babbage’s work will be cut short yet built on for decades to come. Aitken writes:

yet in regard to two
 // in the silent fist of memory, each

of the sources of this power— // flows through the invisible lines

the force of wind and water, // jangling our chains, lifting our wooden limbs

—we merely make use of bodies // animated by living fire, an ocean of regret

in a state of motion // we cannot return from, cannot cross

Throughout the collection, Aitken returns to the idea of love, both romantic and in the vein of a life’s work. Aitken begins on this theme with the chapbook’s second poem, “Babbage in Love, 1811”:

The room suddenly full of celestial motion, the tables brimming with error,

and your hand in hers seems at last so improbable, an unsolvable mystery.

Nothing has prepared you for this moment. Not a childhood spent

summoning the devil into salted circles to ask unanswerable questions.

Not the hours of rowing a skiff across an empty lake at dawn, the arc

of the waves echoing the early light. So many fields of labor, pointless here.

You, as unsteady, as uncertain as you were in youth, a teenage boy with boards

strapped to your feet, trying to walk on water, trying not to drown.

Later, Aitken writes of Babbage’s first encounter with Ada Lovelace and the connection and kinship he feels for her. Through these poems, Aitken complicates the losses that mark Babbage’s professional life by reminding us this historical figure with a penchant for philosophy and dreaming was also driven by human desires: the need to love and be loved.

While Aitken’s Babbage in “Babbage, Circumnavigating the Room, Encounters Ada, 1833” marvels at how Lovelace seems to see the world in the secret way he does, he also recognizes that life can be one of exceptional loneliness:

How is it that the poet’s daughter is so attuned to number, to the secret language

of order, the unheard symphony of the machine you have been composing

in your mind all these years? How is it that you know instantly that in her

beats the same heart of pain, the same proclivity for loss and disaster?

In “Return,” one of Leviathan‘s final poems, Aitken completes the emotional cycle of love poems by illustrating lost love:

The hour is late, the years winding on. The graveyard is already full

with the names of his friends. He lights a candle for one and then another,

and another. The house brims with tiny fires. There are moths in every room.

No one waits at the door, but at the window, a constant beating of wings.

Neil Aitken’s Leviathan offers to the extant literary conversation a new perspective of passion as it combines with the technological mind. While many contemporary essays tend to highlight the ways in which technology increases loneliness and separates us from one another, these poems manage to combine those elements in a way that brings us closer to Babbage and his loves, which in turn brings us closer to our own losses and loves.

Julianna DeMicco is a senior at Binghamton University. She is currently pursuing a double major in philosophy, politics and law, and English with a concentration in creative writing and global cultures. She is a student leader on her campus and has focused her experiences on a service-based learning mentality. As a vocalist, trumpeter, ukulele player, and poet, she is fascinated by the musicality of poetry and loves to experiment with different rhythms in her own work. In her spare time, she furthers her independent study of Italian, French, and Chinese. In addition, she is pursuing a study of poetry and literature from different eras, specifically the Medieval Era to the Early Renaissance.

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