Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine – Martin Figura
Covering the latter half of the 20th Century, the “post war, mod or rocker generation”, of which Figura (an occasional mod) was part, it blurs the edges of personal and collective memory to explore family, relationships and belonging against a social, historical and political backdrop.
The collection draws its title from the work of mathematician, Christopher Zeeman, who encouraging the application of mathematics to behavioural science. His catastrophe machine was a physical manifestation of Catastrophe Theory, which Konrad Lorenz drew on and extended to apply to human behaviour. Amongst the poems here is a set of “machine poems” — ‘Washing Machine’, ‘The Difference Machine’, ‘Knitting Machine’, and ‘Life Support Machine’ among them — which act as metaphors for human behaviour and are rich in social and historical context.
Other poems extend the themes of both the machine and human motifs. A wife retrieves herself from a controlling husband by reversing the order of words; a man, two years, from retirement is taunted by sparrows playing in a gutter while he does physiotherapy exercises; a mod’s handmade brogues symbolise social mobility; a reservoir drains away in the night, its drowned village’s occupants stirring back to life at dawn, …
Conjuring up a peculiar social history that carries the reader from the end of World War Two to where we are now, the collection blurs present and past to surprising effect.
From ‘Doctor Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine’:
No more than elastic bands and two wheels
nailed to plywood. My wife rolled her eyes
when the doctor showed how our moods
stretch out, how at a certain point
the slightest shift in the pendulum
can set us spinning.
The accompanying stage show will be a conversation between the machine poems and a group of more human poems, the machine poems being fixed points along the narrative from which to hang the human poems, which include “political leader” poems, fables, offering a truth within a “lie”, in which selected leaders are placed in fictional circumstances that relate to their personal histories: for example Richard Nixon speaking at his own funeral, Jeremy Thorpe turning his downfall into an Edinburgh Fringe show at The Underbelly, Ted Heath being corralled into playing an out of tune piano in a voter’s cold front room, John Major attempting to return to the circus by applying for a ringmaster post, and Margaret Thatcher leading her people on to the Raft of Medusa.
Martin Figura collection and show, Whistle, was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and won the 2013 Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Show. Whistle is now in a second edition with Cinnamon Press. He won the Poetry Society’s 2010 Hamish Canham Prize. His most recent publications are Shed (Gatehouse Press) and Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine (Cinnamon Press), both published in 2016. The spoken word show, Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine, showcased in 2016, toured in 2017. He was runner-up in the 2017 RSPB/Rialto Poetry Competition. He lives in Norwich with Helen Ivory and sciatica, where he runs the literature event, Café Writers.
Figura was a revelation — funny,sharp and on top form.
Robert McCrum, The Observer