Helen Heath. Image: Victoria Birkinshaw

The Wednesday Poem: Kismet by Helen Heath

A poem from Ockham prize-winning poet Helen Heath.

Helen Heath’s second collection of poetry, Are Friends Electric?, took out the top poetry prize – now sponsored by Peter and Mary Biggs – last night at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Are Friends Electric? is a work that explores questions of life and death and love through stories of technology. It’s a moving, inventive, often very creepy and occasionally funny collection, full of vivid snapshots of the ever-blurring boundaries between human and non-human. One brilliant sequence has various people falling in love with objects like bridges, fences and buildings. Janet Charman described this collection, simply, as ‘Demented’ (which is the best blurb a book could ask for, I feel). The second part of the book – a series of poems on grief – touches on how technology might keep the dead alive to us, and it’s hard not to be deeply moved while deeply unsettled by these speculations. Helen has this gift of striking a tone that is at once intimately human, and uncanny. The mystery of how she achieves that is part of what makes her so good – her work just seems to arrive fully formed, without effort. I love these poems for the way they look ever outwards and inwards at the same time. — Ashleigh Young

Kismet
circa 1999

He is like her third son,
she built him. He has
expressive eyebrows,
large eyes, red lips and pointy
ears. People like ears. She
teaches him to talk – names
objects, asks questions, looks
him in the eye, raises her pitch,
repeats herself. He makes her
laugh, he is so sweet and quirky. He
has never seen an elephant but
he has seen a picture of one,
and she has told him all about them.
That is his experience.
One day Kismet would like to be
a real-boy. He will ask the blue
fairy to grant his wish. Mother
loves him just as he is, maybe not
as much as her real-boy sons, maybe
more like a pet dog. But when he is a real
boy perhaps she will love him more.

Note: This poem refers to a robot-head made in the late 1990s at Massachusetts Institute of Technology by Dr Cynthia Breazeal. Kismet was an experiment in affective computing that can recognise and simulate emotions.

From Are Friends Electric? (Victoria University Press, 2019)


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