My Typewriter Story

To celebrate the release of the documentary, California Typewriter, their Facebook page has made a call for folks to share their #TypewriterStory. It could win you a typewriter! My story is longish, and involves line breaks, so I thought I’d write it up here instead, give myself the sprawl of the blogspace. I guess I’ll just start with the poem. Well, the first poem. My poem.
I bought this Underwood typewriter
for my last fifteen dollars in an old man’s
yard somewhere between Pott’s Grove
and Washingtonville, off a road that spun
lazy through fields of corn, withering
from June’s lack of rain, through fields
of wheat waving stiff and crisp as khaki.
I tested the keys, entranced: the “B”
and the “M” leaned slightly to the right,
the “2” and the “Q” stuck the worst,
but the quick brown fox jumped over
the lazy dogs.
                            The old proprietor,
who appeared from behind a tree to my calls,
winked and gave me a cardboard carton
to carry it in. His yard was filled with junk:
skeletal iron bed frames, pots and pans steely
with sunlight, plates from several states,
a market scale, a seamstress’s dress form,
one box of shoes, one box of plastic honey dispensers,
a Mary Poppins carpet bag–and tables full
of other lost, forgotten knickknacks.
                                                            I asked,
“Is it all yours?” “No, some of it I get.” “How
do you get it?” He said no more, offered
a noncommittal shrug.
                                         To the side
of this sunlit gallery, a small red shed
with a sign on its open door: “Do Not Enter,”
and peering in I could scarcely make out
the pale face of a large porcelain doll in the dark.
Outlines and shadows of other things loomed
over him; it was a porcelain boy in blue.
The old man said those things were not for sale
today, but after I paid for this typewriter,
a huge glass brick, a wooden baby swing,
and angel and devil salt and pepper shakers,
he said “Wait,” and ambled inside.
                                                       He emerged
with a small green metal case and set it out
proudly on one of his peeling, rickety
three-dollar tables. Smiling, knowing exactly
what would please us, he brushed off dust,
lifted away the lid, revealing a Tom Thumb
child’s typewriter. I think I was properly amazed,
and reminded him I had no money left. He nodded.
“Next time you need a typewriter, you come
back here. I’ll have something new, then.”
His rooster crowed, I took some photographs,
and he called after me, “You put those in the paper!”
Home, I finally notice there is no key
for the number one, no space for it.
No exclamation mark, either. Black with green
and gold script, this fifty-pound writing machine
could be a pipe organ, Model “T” or steam locomotive.
My new interpreter will make stubborn muscle
of my fingers, which lunge into it. It lurches
forward, shakes the table, chatters out these lines,
the hammers little soldiers marching
at my command.
                              I’ll call her Viola, after the crazy,
antique Viola who lives in my building and tells
angry, earnest stories of the aliens, subversives
and communists who plague her life. She yells
at me in the elevator, demands I pin up
the smoky, wandering wisps of her hair.

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.
Escapement mended.
Keys ungummed; oiled.
New, untraveled ribbon.
Brought forth,
like some mechanical Lazarus
from that Pennsylvania barn-crypt where
interred in cow dung motes
I rested
Until you bought me
brought 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?

The sixty-word-per-minute
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?
Chosin Reservoir?
Chu Lai?

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
(with footnotes)
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
reborn keys.
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.


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