Sun
Apr 10 2011 2:30pm

Twelve Steampunk Sonnets

Roz Kaveney

Of this sequence of sonnets, which originally appeared on her personal weblog in November 2010, Roz Kaveney notes: “In various LiveJournal posts, Charles Stross and Cat Valente argued provocatively that steampunk had played itself out. These poems were my way of begging to differ—I took all of their points and yet was still in love with the imagery.”

[Publishers' Note: This was originally posted as “Seven Steampunk Sonnets” because when we went to the author's LiveJournal to retrieve their texts, several poems in the sequence were invisible to us due to that site's ongoing problems. For such an error to happen due to Russian cyberwarfare seems, well, fantastical—a “-punk” somewhere between cyber and steam. While we have changed the title of this post and restored the missing poems, in order to minimize further confusion we have left the post's unique URL unaltered.]

 

Vengeance

Small zeppelins were parked outside the ball
moored to the gaslights. Out of shadows crept
the monocled adventuress, who stepped
up to the door and had announced to all

by flunkeys that she meant to punish those
who stole her father’s patents, would await
them at the duelling ground. Her quiet hate
made her cheeks bright. Her long and genteel nose

expressed her scorn at this appalling age
when men had lost their honour. She had brought
pistols, and swords, and lasers, and she fought
the six old men, in turn. She’d lived in rage

so long their deaths were just the bloody start
of all the wars she harboured in her heart.

 

Endurance

They had no need of dogs. Cut through the ice
with heated blades—their ship was iron-clad,
could not be crushed or stopped. Their air-boats had
scouted the way, placed beacons. Once or twice

the powered sledges stopped in slurried snow,
but only to build up a head of steam.
The pressure gauges functioned like a dream
The sledges shook a second, then would go

and then slow down again, to walking pace
perhaps a little faster. At the Pole
they left no flag. Such journeys take a toll.
One said “Good God, this is an awful place.”

The pulsing engines’ noise and warm hot breath
silenced shrill blizzard voices' call to death.

 

Happiness

The stokeress had washed her sooty face
And wore her best bandana round a neck
Scrubbed almost white. She took a turn on deck,
Chatted to a lieutenant. Knew her place

But flirted anyway. He took her to
The magic lantern show and kissed her hand
On parting. And she dreamed how he would stand
Outside her cabin door, and bring the shoe

She had not left behind. Awoke to spend
Her days in shovelling, and dust, and grime,
Her nights exhausted. Found her life sublime
To serve the great machine, and sometimes mend

Rips in the fabric of its bag, look down
At Delhi, Boston, Prague and London Town.

 

Workers By Hand and Brain

At first they dug with picks, and then the great
steam drills were made. The navvies, who had carved
their way through living rock, sickened or starved
or died of bends. The bubbles percolate

to heart or brain; you die. Not soon enough,
The engineers and stokers died as well.
They might as well have tunnelled into Hell.
The bubbles came for them. Not only rough

workers by hand die at those depths; the brains
of scientists who tried to work out why
exploded too. They came back, saw the sky
and felt the pangs of death. These days the trains

are pressurized. Unharmed we make our way
from London to New York in just one day.

 

The Engine

They started him on messages; he’d go
on roller-skates down the long corridor
with windows to the engine. It was more
than he could take in, but he came to know

it first by all its parts—the cogs and gears,
the pistons and the loom that read each card.
It was the computation he found hard
but learned its pounding rhythms down the years.

He'd moved from skates to oil-can, then to run
the simpler programmes, then to write his own,
and then to oversee. He’d sometimes moan
in sleep, as if he felt a throbbing ton

of metal in his brain. He lost his sight
and hearing, as the numbers grew more bright.

 

Brick Lane

Jack killed them near Brick Lane—yes, Spring-Heeled Jack
With his electric stilts and clockwork saws.
He hated women—it was not just whores.
He loved to cut, and slash, and maim, and hack

all of their organs out. They organized
the milliners, the match-girls. Bar-maids too.
The whores of course. And they acquired glue,
thick horse-hoof glue. Bad Jack was quite surprised

He chased the women who’d been placed as bait
in streets he hunted. Suddenly he found
his leaping boots were still, stuck to the ground.
They’d organized a union of hate

Fed to a great steam pattern-cutter’s blades.
Jack dies slow, and his legend also fades.

 

Conspiracy Theory

Their plan succeeds although it takes them years,
and though it costs them everything. They send
a poppy blight to China, and they spend
gold sending steam-guns to the mutineers

in India. Black airships in the night
swoop down to rescue all escaping slaves,
take them to Canada, and men this saves
are then recruited to the bloody fight

that follows, saves the peoples of the Sioux,
who keep the Black Hills. When the red flags fly
in London, and they are condemned to die,
they kiss upon the scaffold, and stay true

and only are unmasked once they are dead.
Albert the Good, Victoria the Red.

 

Things Lost

So many eye-patches and clockwork hands,
ivory legs with perfectly hinged joints.
The lignum vitae walking stick that points
to war-wounds earned in blood on Afghan sands

borne stoically. So much pain and loss
the backbeat of a world of great machines,
the backwash of its energy. This means,
I think, that if we found our way across

to that world, or they find their way to ours,
there would be envy, not unmixed with pride.
That they had hurt so much, that on our side
we've had it soft, that our vast mirrored towers

our cleaner air, flushed skin, are children's toys
for Eloi far too weak for smoke and noise.

 

Infernal Machines

The anarchists had built their clockwork egg,
it sprouted knives and cut the Tsar in half,
Rasputin’s with him in the photograph.
A gout of blood splashed crimson on his leg.

He chose to help the living Tsar, checked skin
for cuts or bruises that would bleed him out
in minutes. From the wall he took a knout,
lashed the automaton to bits. The din

of screaming maids of honour made him turn
and calm them with a gesture. His pale eyes
led him that night between the mourning thighs
of Alexandra, in whose bed he'd earn

the Regency, keep Holy Russia free
of progress and its dark machinery.

 

Gravestones

A luckless family. “Died in Bengal,
a clockwork tiger's prey.” “Died clothes on fire
standing by a glass furnace.” “Proved a liar
in Madagascar’s poison ritual

and died of it.” “Fell from enormous height
her airship tempest-torn.” “Shot in the heart
a husband found her photographic art
had stolen love and soul.” “Murdered by night

by radium bandits who left him aglow
with deadly salts.” “Blown into bits
by Zulu cannonade.” “She lost her wits
breaking the spirit known as Wendigo.”

In their world, as in ours, the Empire’s spread
is red as blood and paid for with its dead.

 

Victory

The penal colony was built to kill
by slow degrees, yet both of them survived
mines, floggings, hot box. It left them deprived
of all they’d been—beauty and charm—yet still

they loved each other as they always had

whispered endearments as they killed a guard.
They cut his throat in public in the yard;
started the rising. There was something mad

about their confidence, but it inspired

convicts and locals. And the Empire’s men

fled from the fury of the mob. Just ten

short weeks of fighting all that was required

to free a nation. They were found in bed

by their supporters, who then shot them dead.

 

Destiny

The steam-powered organ played a fugue. The church
was crowded with admirers numb with grief
but also cheered by their devout belief
in heaven. The great airship gave a lurch

as her brass coffin with the triple seal
was dropped over the side into the sea
so far below. “Nearer my God to thee”
was sung; and then they ate a hearty meal

of pork pie and fried cod. Beneath the waves
out of the coffin fins sprang. In its lid
a porthole. Finally the girl was rid
of all her suitors, the devoted slaves

that kept her prisoner. Beneath the sea
she'd seek Atlantis and her destiny.


 

Roz Kaveney is a British editor, critic, and journalist. Her books include From Alien to the Matrix: Reading Science Fiction Film and Teen Dreams: Reading Teen Film and Television from Heathers to Veronica Mars. Her debut novel, Rhapsody of Blood 1: Rituals, will be published in July 2012 by Plus One Press.

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6 comments
Jo Walton
1. bluejo
It's lovely to see all these together as a sequence.
Fabio Fernandes
2. fabiofernandes
Roz, have your ever considered the possibility of rewriting these marvelous sonnets as twelve short stories? I loved them as they are, but would definitely love seeing them as narratives as well.
Rymenhild
3. Rymenhild
No, no, don't touch them or change them, they're glorious. I may hang Conspiracy Theory on my wall.

(Okay, not that I would object to seeing these as stories, but they're so complete in themselves that I don't think they need the alterations!)
Roz Kaveney
4. RozKaveney
The part of my brain that writes stories and the part that writes poems are different parts even when the poems are also stories. Or rather the echo of stories that do not exist in poems that do.

You see, these were not plotted as such- I started from a strong image and perhaps a first line and then let the verse structure tell the story for me. I would actually argue that the 'stories' of several of them are illusions in that I used narrative fragments as if they were words and images.

I improvise wildly in my fiction, but I usually know what I am doing and where I am going - in poems not so much...
Rymenhild
5. JuJu
Exquisite imagery, my dear.
Rymenhild
6. EDWIN M. JACQUES
HELO, I HAVE BEEN A POET FOR OVER SIXTY-FIVE YEARS.

I HAVE KNOWN ABOUT "STEAMPUNK" LITERATURE FOR ABOUT AN HOUR.

I AM INTERESTED IN WHAT I HAVE READ SO FAR, VERY LITTLE.

I LIKE YOUR SONNET SEQUENCE. PLEASE KEEP THE POETRY GOING.

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