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Poem: "The Automaton Convocation" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "The Automaton Convocation"

This poem came out of the February 21, 2012 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by prompts from aldersprig, fabricdragon, siliconshaman, and e_scapism101.  It has been sponsored by janetmiles.  You can explore the Steamsmith series further via the Serial Poetry page.

This started with a request for more about the tommies, and references to the performance and the lyrics of "Herr Drosselmeyer's Doll."  I pulled in some previous research about the kinds of alchemy that various nations have favored, then looked up references for the titles, first and last names, and cities.  The result is a gathering of steamsmiths from across Europe, meeting in London to show off their best constructs.

The Automaton Convocation

The convocation is crowded with displays
of automatons from around Europe:

Here is Monsieur Bellamy from Nantes
with a matched set of gardeners,
each one holding a different tool.
The local steamsmiths throng to the booth,
hoping he will notice them, for the French
are famous for their refinement of British ideas.

Here is Maestro Caravello from Venice
with his crystalline opera singers
and there is Kyrios Adamou from Rhodes
with his music box dancers.
They too are popular,
representatives of classic civilization.

Here is Herr Drosselmeyer from Berlin
with his steamwork ballerina.
There is Herr Dr. Uhrmacher
with his clockwork orangutans
and his assistant Herr Fluckiger
with his patchwork seamstress,
both from Freiburg.
People watch them warily,
the German Confederation having a reputation
for political enlightenment and mad scientists.

The British booths are all together
showing off a variety automatons:
porters, butlers, waitresses, sentries,
and others less specialized.
When the visiting steamsmiths manage
to slip away from their booths,
this is where they come.

In the show,
the shiny gardeners perform handsomely
but one of the opera singers shatters herself.
The music box dancers are elegant,
but the life-size ballerina is a staggering disaster.
The clockwork orangutans, intended to replace zoo animals,
descend on the seamstress and rip her to ribbons.

Maryam's tommies are not so spectacular,
built of plain bronze and tin and steel,
their metal faces serious and their hands exact.
They go about their tasks with quiet efficiency,
never making the audience laugh at strange antics.
They do not drop anything,
nor do they break down.

Maryam accepts her trophy with a solemn nod
and walks past her grumbling peers,
grateful for the objective scoring system.

The gentlemen may know
what a servant is supposed to do,
but Maryam also knows how.

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Current Mood: busy busy

12 comments or Leave a comment
janetmiles From: janetmiles Date: February 25th, 2012 02:43 am (UTC) (Link)
The gentlemen may know
what a servant is supposed to do,
but Maryam also knows how.

Awesome. Perfect ending, seems to me.

I'm quite liking Miss Smith.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 25th, 2012 02:52 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>>Awesome. Perfect ending, seems to me.<<

I'm glad to hear it.

I was remembering the computer class my mother used to teach, and an assignment about programming a robot to make a sandwich. By the time the bell rang, I had several pages of instructions and hadn't even got the jar of peanut butter open yet. Meanwhile, everyone else thought they were done with half a page or so. I figured that a lot of the same thing would happen with programming automatons, even though they have a kind of 'spirit' that makes them a bit more responsive.

It's a lot easier to program things if you know how to do them, or failing that, have someone willing to stand next to you and do it 50 times and explain how it's done and why the mechanical arm just dropped the egg for the 51st time. There's a world of difference between hiring servants and ordering them around, vs. actually having friends belowstairs who will help you with your project and not wig out if the tommy's head falls off. So Maryam has an advantage here.

>>I'm quite liking Miss Smith.<<

Yay! She does give a whole new meaning to the phrase "high maintenance, high reward" but I really think she's worth it.
janetmiles From: janetmiles Date: February 25th, 2012 02:58 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

Also, it occurred to me that while the last verse doesn't technically meet the requirements for a haiku, it has a very haiku-like feeling to it. To me, anyway.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 25th, 2012 03:07 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

Yes, I see what you mean. Different people have different interpretations of what constitutes "haiku" though. By some standards it may well count.

I think there is a very Zen, "chop wood, carry water" aspect to that coda.
rix_scaedu From: rix_scaedu Date: February 25th, 2012 04:49 am (UTC) (Link)
Does Herr Dr Uhrmacher come from a long line of steamsmiths, has he changed his name to suit his profession or does he come from a background that doesn't have surnames and been listed by his profession to make a clerk somewhere happy?
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 25th, 2012 08:51 am (UTC) (Link)


Half and half, actually. The name means "clocksmith" (literally "hour-maker") and his family is into clockworks, a branch of alchemical technology that deals with time. But he favors steamworks ... or is trying to, at any rate.
rix_scaedu From: rix_scaedu Date: February 25th, 2012 09:06 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

Perhaps he feel that some of the principles of clockworks should translate well into steamworks?
(Deleted comment)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 25th, 2012 05:28 am (UTC) (Link)


>>As a solidly Function over Form guy, I really like the "grateful for the objective scoring system." line!<<

Maryam and I agree that "form follows function." The shape of a thing is largely determined by what it does.

The scoring system, by the way, is similar to what some labs use for Robot Wars or Space Explorers or similar competitions. In each category there are specific tasks to perform and requirements to meet. Some of the categories, like singing and dancing, also include aspects of practical aesthetics (a dancer must look graceful, a singer must sound appealing).

>>Get the job done, then worry about making it look pretty if you've got time/money/energy left over.<<

Precisely. Decoration is a specialty of the French, who often take other people's ideas -- sometimes quite clunky ones -- then make them work smoother and look shinier. Maryam's tommies are elegant as they stand, but in an understated way. They don't have, say, gold piping or oakleaf chasing or jeweled fobs. But they do have the classy look of a new car or a good stove.

Tommies are sometimes used in areas that aren't safe for humans, or to do things that humans don't do as well (such as heavy lifting) or that are very repetitive and tedious. Other times they are used as status symbols to indicate an interest in alchemy and other sciences, both by alchemists and people who admire them. So there's a range of interest in models that are practical vs. ones that are decorative.
From: siliconshaman Date: February 25th, 2012 12:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
I quite like Maryam's approach... never mind the fripperies, just so long as it works efficiently.

There's a few around nowadays that could do with learning that.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 25th, 2012 09:02 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

She does tend to build things that not only work, but keep working. That's a selling point.

Advertising rules say, "Sell the sizzle, not the steak." I want the steak, and am unimpressed by sizzle. Every once in a while, I come across an opportunity to promote that idea.
e_scapism101 From: e_scapism101 Date: February 25th, 2012 06:48 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wonderful! That ending really is perfect.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 25th, 2012 08:41 pm (UTC) (Link)


I'm glad you like it.
12 comments or Leave a comment