I wrote this poem as a college student, 25 years ago, after buying my first antique typewriter, pretty much as described above in that entirely too wordy poem. It was the summer before my senior year, and I was attending the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, and really trying on what it might mean to Be A Poet. It was fitting, I guess, that my first Underwood and I found one another during a day trip during the Seminar. It made me feel Very Much Especially Poetic.
The summer after I graduated, before I headed off to grad school, my dad took temporary custody of the typewriter, and gave it a thorough tune-up and cleaning. He was a model ship-builder and engineer, and all-around handy guy, so this was right up his alley. And because he also had an artistic spirit, he returned the typewriter to me with a poem of his own, though he swore its true author was the machine itself — you’ll see why. I have a scan of the original, but I’m having trouble making it post-able in all its typewritten glory. So, here it is, just typed in by me on this dumb laptop keyboard:
by John Ahl
Ahah! So there you are!
The one. Come closer!
Look at me now!
Black lacquer gleaming.
Keys ungummed; oiled.
New, untraveled ribbon.
like some mechanical Lazarus
from that Pennsylvania barn-crypt where
interred in cow dung motes
Until you bought me
Did you remember me from the time before?
There were so many times, before.
Did I know you before?
Which one are you?
The whiskey-flushed night reporter
who, with shaky, tobacco stained fingers
hunt-and-pecked page seven unread
Broadway gossip of the 20’s?
manicured secretary who
typed lawyers’ briefs
served lawyers’ coffee
avoided lawyers’ hands
until she was committed?
Are you the fiction writer
whose nail-bit, cold fingers sought, but
never quite found the answer?
The indifferent Corporal
who typed letters of bereavement
for the Captain’s signature
advising parents of their sons’ untimely but
gallant death in Bataan?
Perhaps you are the clerk, who
with greasy hands
typed up orders for Buick parts.
Or the hands poised, mind paralyzed high school junior
seeking inspiration from 45 RPM rock and roll
for a 1000 word, typed, double-spaced
carbon paper triplicate essay
on Henry James Jr’s Portrait of a Lady.
None of those, you say?
Then come closer.
Put your fingers on my
Tell me who you are.
I love my dad’s personification of the typewriter as possessor of the spirits of its previous users. I think he glimpsed the human spirit inside the machine, evidenced by the slight wear and tear. I think that for him, working on it was a way to connect with those ghosts. I love seeing his imagination at work in those lines, which he presented me sort of shyly, rolled right into the Underwood, as if it had typed itself.
In the years since, I’ve amassed and parted with many typewriters. Someone even left one on my doorstep once, a sturdy little orphan. At one point, I had about twenty of them, but I think I’m at a modest dozen or so now. I can’t remember the last time I drafted a poem on one of them. My dad passed away in 2015, not yet having completed his latest ship model, a scratch-built Constitution. Typing that poem into this post is a chance to hear his voice again, to remember his delight at the Underwood I left in his care for him to bring back to lustrous, solid (if not mint) condition.
I think I’m drawn to manual typewriters for the energies they carry, those that my dad sensed and translated into his poem. They are machines, yes, but machines powered by human touch and muscle, churning out human language, and, now, in the age of iPads and texts made of light, I find comforting music in their clatter, and a sturdy anchor in their physical heft, their dark, shining presence.