Bowler-hatted, unsmiling, moustachioed,
a group of men stands beside their machines;
apprentices crouch at their feet, caps awry as their grins.
The manager’s wife flaunts the region’s first car.
In these huge posters by the ticket office,
it’s easy to mistake the time the shutter took to descend
for gravitas, as if watching us.
Once inside, the polished, gleaming semi-darkness makes
the glare barricaded at the entrance look cheap and flat.
Huge pistons are poised, about to resume
their genuflections, giant flywheels stationary beside them
as though the parts of some celestial clockwork
had been dismantled and lined up.
The guide balances a coin on the casing
to show how smoothly the piston rods perform,
without the least vibration, in greased silence.
Our kids, from a world of few moving parts,
where whatever machinery is left
is so well-hidden it might as well be magic,
go back outside for better reception, unimpressed,
but we linger out of curiosity:
for all the size of these components,
there was an amenable logic
and purpose to the way rocking beams, cranks, rods
moved and pulled and pushed, visibly connecting
to the task or purpose
of lifting and conveying the most basic elements of a city
from one place to a much better place
and nostalgia too, for the reticent confidence
in machinery tooled with such precision,
yet still decorated, made beautiful in filigree and ornament
as though sludge had its sacral moments too
for all the boilers’ black, bulky
indestructibility; to make a machine
that could operate with such grace,
as if all that was needed to keep the world in motion
was someone in overalls proudly standing by
with a little can of oil.
First published in Westerly November 2021
Best of Australian Poems 2022