René Descartes and the Clockwork Girl

Kathryn Nuernberger - 1980-

In man, it was written, are found the elements
and their characteristics, for he passes
from cold to hot, moisture to dryness.
He comes into being and passes out of being
like the minerals, nourishes and reproduces
like the plants, has feeling and life
like animals. His figure resembles the terebinth;
his hair, grass; veins, arteries; rivers, canals;
and his bones, the mountains.


Then the vascular system was discovered.
Pump and pulley replaced wind and mill
sweeping blood down those dusty roads.
And Descartes, the first to admit
he supposed a body to be nothing
but a machine made of earth. Mere clockwork.
He found this a comfort because
you can always wind a machine back up.

The Chimera was a clock in the form of a leviathan,
Memento Mori was the shape of skull.
Spheres and pendants, water droplets and pears.
Milkmaids tugging udders on the hour.
Some kept time using Berthold’s new equation,
some invented the second hand. The Silver Swan
sits in a stream of glass ripples and gilded leaves,
swallowing silver-plated fish as music plays.

After Descartes’ daughter died,
he took to the sea. They say he went
so mad with grief he remade her
as automaton. A wind-up cog and lever
elegy hidden in the cargo hold.

He said the body is a machine
and he may well be right about that.
But when she was so hot with fever
she could not breathe, and then so suddenly cold,
he held his fingers on her wrist and felt
only his own heart pumping. All the wind
and water of a daughter became a vast meadow
that has no design and no function
and there is no way beyond that stretch of grass.

Grief, the sailors said, is a hex
and contagion and it will draw the wind
down from the sails. It will stopper
in the glass jar sitting like a heart
in the chamber of a mechanical girl
with mechanical glass eyes. On a ship beleaguered
by storm, they ripped open the box
with a crowbar to find the automaton
Descartes called Francine because he missed
saying her name. They threw her into the wake
and his face became a moon in the black
deep, each wave lapping it under.

He supposed that if you thought hard enough
you should be able to understand,
for example, how a stick would refract
in water even if you had never seen a stick
or water or the light of day. By this means,
he said, your mind will be delivered.

If you think hard enough, you can light a fire
in the hearth. Your child can press herself
against your knee and snug her shoulder into yours
as you wind the clock of a girl like and unlike her,
who can walk three remarkable skips and blink
and curtsy politely before ticking down.

It may be there is no wind blowing
blood through the body, but, arm around her,
you feel how she flushes with fiery amazement
as she puts her little hand over her own
cuckooing heart, because this is what we do
when Papa has taken our breath away.

More by Kathryn Nuernberger

The Symbolical Head (1883) as When Was the Last Time?

What faculties, when perverted, most degrade the mind?
What faculties, when perverted, does it cost most to gratify?

I undertook to discover the soul in the body—
I looked in the pineal gland, I looked
in the vena cava. I looked in every
perforating arterial branch. With the fingers
of my right, I touched the Will and the Ring
of Solomon on the left. For a second
I felt sprung. Then bereft as ever.
Someone used to love me. Someone
used to see me. If you open a person up,
purple, pulsing. It’s in here somewhere, scalpel,
and in and in. Let’s walk in the woods,
as we once did, and see if we can find a snail,
its shell covered in symbiotic lichen.
When you covered my lichen in yours,
I thought that’s what we wanted—
to be rock and moss and slug and all of it.
To be simultaneously thinking of snails,
which are so beautifully stony
and marvelously squished.
Wasn’t that what we wanted?
I went to your lecture. I thought it
best to retrace my steps. You were trying
to explain—If I were to put my fingers directly on your brain . . .
I wish you would, how I wish you would
trace the seagull diving towards the water
as a whale rises up, the anchor dropped, the gray
linen slacks, all the polygons of my this and that
jigsawing under your touch. Oh yes, let’s
do that. Let’s vivisect my brain and see
if it’s in there. You have your porcelain man
with the black-lined map of his longing.
You have your pointer and your glasses
and your pen. I hear you ask the class, What faculties,
having ascendancy, are deaf to reason? What faculty,
when large, brightens every object on which we look?

I miss you, you know. I miss you so.

My First Peacock

I keep a white peacock behind my ear,
a wasn’t, a fantail of wasn’ts,
nevered feathers upon evered
falling all over the grass.
When a green peacock landed
on my shoulder to shimmy
its iridescent trills, everyone asked
if it was my first peacock.
It’s impolite to speak of the translucent tail
hanging down behind your ear
like a piece of hair brushed back
in a moment lost to thought.
To make the well-wishers uncomfortably shift
their weight by saying, No,
first I had this white peacock.

Because it’s not anyone’s fault
who can’t see the glaucoma
eyes on mist plumes
that don’t see them back.
So I say, Yes. And I say
how very emerald joy is,
how very leafed with lapis and gilding.