Democratically Applied Machine by Robert Colmon

In his third poetry collection, Democratically Applied Machine, Robert Colmon’s poems are “small warrens of good work” as he says of a city-wide field of factories in his poem “Where Did All the Job Shops Go?”. Like his American predecessor Philip Levine, Colmon takes as his subject matter the assembly lines and industrial factories that keep the machine of Capitalism well-oiled, and the rich sitting atop mountains of plenty.   

Like Philip Levine, Colmon’s language is plain-spoken and unadorned, but the patterns he creates with those words are carefully machine-crafted, “intuited in edge and thread”.  For instance, read his poem “Ghosting the Assembly Line” and notice the near-total absence of human workers:

Watch the car’s body, trundled into place, 
 hands blurred, houring the births. History. 
 Quaint now, all those mouths that drawled 
 parts, paycheques, dinners, flatware sets. 
 As if our revolutions could still be fashioned, 
 wrench on wrench, turned in unison.

 Take the minutes, now, transcribed notes 
 penned up the line, white lab coats. Sketch 
 the fingers that tool intention—Lean, Kanban, 
 black belts framed above large workstations, 
 intricate knots, each an action, the clean line 
 abstracting passion. The robots wave a greeting.

 Hear the hum, second-hand vibrato accent 
 of the job shop floor. Work is done in smallness
 one part, four, more as required. As operator, 
 accountant, time hoarder. One man a workforce, 
 awaiting the order, more like us every day
 palms alighting on keyboards,

 millling down the hours 
 into scrap.

Philip Levine lamented how poetry was becoming more and more “unpeopled”, and Robert Colmon plots a similar view in his poem where the scant workers that do appear seem to be “jacks-of-all-trades” keeping the large workstations and the waving robots, and the second-hand vibrato of the job floor going while “milling the hours into scrap”. 

Gone is the romantic bustle of “a hard day’s work”, and in its place are a few isolated highly skilled workers asked to do a myriad of difficult jobs that offer little in personal satisfaction and human connection. 

This theme is taken up in another poem called “After Lowry, After Cornish” where the heavy manual labour of old, complete with its ailments, is but a trace memory as the factories are slowly being replaced by condos: 

This shop is no longer akin 
to working the coalface.
The flat cap is stacked 
on the hat stand, decorous.
The whistle blows inside, 
though we don’t recall 
where, or how it began.
Nothing is seen as a need, 
as such, so need wallows, 
a word at sea, and we are 
all walking away from seeing.
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.
In the painting… if this were a painting… 
we are all walking away, hatless, 
in snow that is only our snow.
In fact, there are many canvases—single 
man or woman in each, backs turned, 
covered in their own muslin cloths.
So quiet, you’d like to think it were 
the end of something, a noble exit, 
which was what we always wanted, 
wasn’t it? Serenity, of a sort.
Nothing makes a sound in these paintings 
White silence. The counsel of one.
But then, what is home?

The concluding lines in this poem are intriguing as if the end of work was what was always sought, but now that the factories are shutting down, there is a heavy engine whiff of nostalgia. It is as if the speaker is in exile mourning the white silence that is replacing the noise of the factory floors, and the sense of belonging that once accompanied such skilled labour, when he asks, “what is home?”

Colmon’s book is not all work and no play, however, as the poems spin off into other areas—playful centos, erasure poems, urban sprawl, seasonal affective disorder—and fraught family relationships in this sonnet called “Father to Son”:  

 Was I meant to play the saint? I don’t know. 
The God of I Don’t Know, that’s what I knew. 
I remember cheering you to the goal 
at hockey, all the days I didn’t have to choose
to do or be anything. I was just there, 
and the days happened. But hours alone, 
in my head, mid-Atlantic, I feared 
my self and my loss. What is home?
I know you think that’s a simple question, 
but it doesn’t take an ocean to confuse it, 
merely time, the ego’s expectations 
meeting the fear of its limits.
In the midst of it you set an example, 
mistakes threaded into involuntary muscle.

I really like how this sonnet riffs with the form, questioning again notions of home and also paternal identity (which is part of a clutch of poems about his father’s Alzheimer’s disease), but it is the sections rife with the grittiness and ghosts of the job shops that really thread the whole collection together.

In Democratically Applied Machine by Robert Colmon, dehumanizing labour and heart-wrenching family history intermingle with a range of appealing verse forms to produce vibrant immediate poems that look upon the changing nature of work and families with an intimate understanding and profound self-awareness.

Robert Colman is a Newmarket, Ont.-based writer and editor. He has been involved in trade publications for the manufacturing industry for more than ten years. Colman is the author of two other full-length collections of poetry, Little Empires (Quattro Books 2012) and The Delicate Line (Exile Editions 2008), and the chapbook Factory (Frog Hollow Press 2015). He received his MFA from UBC in 2016 and served on the editorial board of PRISM International from 2015 to 2019.

  • Publisher : Palimpsest Press (May 1 2020)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 80 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 1989287433
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1989287439

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Chris Banks is a Canadian poet and author of six collections of poems with Deepfake Serenade from Nightwood Editions forthcoming in Fall 2021. His first full-length collection, Bonfires, was awarded the Jack Chalmers Award for poetry by the Canadian Authors’ Association in 2004. Bonfires was also a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. His poetry has appeared in The New Quarterly, Arc Magazine, The Antigonish Review, Event, The Malahat Review, GRIFFEL, American Poetry Journal, Prism International, among other publications. He lives and writes in Waterloo, Ontario.