Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin - Death and Engines

In brief:

Death and Engines focuses on the inevitability of death in all our lives. Each of us will encounter a moment when we are ‘Cornered’ by death and will have no way to escape.  Some might survive encounters with death and feel ‘relief’ but they cannot escape it forever.  A time will come when it will be ‘too late to stop’.

Stanza by Stanza:

The poem opens with the image of a crashed plane in the snow visible from the plane she is on as it approaches Paris airport in winter. She compares the ‘Tubular’ fuselage to ‘an empty tunnel’. The remains of the plane are ‘burnt out’ and black against the contrasting whiteness of the snow.

In the second verse the poet is aboard the return flight home facing the ‘snow-white runways in the dark’. The poet associates the plane’s metal wings with the coldness of death that will eventually seep into us: ‘The cold of the metal wings is contagious’. When we are ‘cornered’ by death we will need a miracle to survive: ‘Soon you will need wings of your own’. 

She describes death as the moment where our lives and time finally intersect: ‘Time and life like a knife and fork/Cross.’ She uses the image from palm-reading of the ‘breaking’ of the lifeline hinting at a fatalistic view of life  - that we all have an evitable destiny.

She concludes stanza 3 with an image reminiscent of the immensely tragic events of 9/11: ‘the curve of an aeroplane’s track/ Meets the straight skyline.’

The attacks on the Twin Towers in New York have left a huge psychological imprint on the generation of people who witnessed it either first hand or on television. We all wonder what the people on those planes went through before their tragic deaths. What is it like to know you are going to die but can do nothing to save yourself?

Sometimes death is cheated. People survive horrific accidents and live to tell their tale: “The images of relief:/ Hospital pyjamas, screens round a bed/ A man with a bloody face/ Sitting up in bed, conversing cheerfully/ Through cut lips”.

Eventually we will all have to face it however: “You will find yourself alone
/ Accelerating down a blind
/ Alley, too late to stop.”

Final Stanza

We won’t feel any pain once we are gone but out families will remember us and grieve for us: “You will be scattered like wreckage;/ The pieces, every one a different shape
 /Will painfully lodge in the hearts
/Of all who love you.”

The poem associates death with modern transport: ‘Engines’ especially airplanes. These powerful machines that can fly above the earth and travel at huge speeds also expose our mortality and powerlessness in the face of death.

The images of planes crashing into buildings and a car accelerating down a blind/ Alley’ play upon our fears being in a machine spiraling out of control and not being able to do anything to save ourselves.


Assonance (repeated vowel sounds) features strongly in this poem in the second and third verses creating a sombre effect:

‘The snow-white runways in the dark/ No sound came over/ The loudspeakers, except the sighs/ Of the lonely pilot.’

 ‘Time and life like a knife’.

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