Song of the Ghost in the Machine by Roger Horrocks

(VUP, 2015)

Review by Jeremy Roberts

‘The Ghost in the Machine’ is a startling phrase that philosopher Gilbert Ryle originally coined when discussing the ‘mind-body relationship’ in humans. Kiwi author Roger Horrocks spent a year thinking hard about life while going on regular walks — thinking, that is, from the confines of his own body. ‘Dated equipment’ is how he describes his own (aging) sensory vehicle. The mind of Horrocks, however, did more than merely perambulate in some steady, expected pattern. On the evidence here, it remains creative, flexible, and full of decades of remembered human experience. This work is both ‘questioning’ and ‘decisive’.

The blurb calls this publication ‘a freewheeling philosophical poem’, which seems apt, because Horrocks is certainly in a philosophical mood. But Song of the Ghost in the Machine is not some heavy academic thesis. It is very readable and is set out in titled sections that make it easy to select what you might be most interested in — i.e. Walking, Consciousness, Body, Language, Melancholia, Self, Micro/Macro, Sleeping & Waking, Death, Evolution, and Gods. Horrocks himself states in afterword notes that consciousness is the overall theme.

A very interesting feature of the book is the major use of quotations from scientists, philosophers, poets and the like (including Kiwis), which not only sets a context for Horrocks, but also offers a parallel range of commentary and alternative points of view. Each section begins with around a dozen of these. Horrocks obviously enjoys the company of these great and interesting minds, and so the book can almost be read as a collaborative effort.

In Walking, there is some narrative content from the actual walks, e.g. ‘Step out this morning into winter space / textured by fog, wind, pinpricks of rain’. Body and mind are almost one: ‘Gravity never lets me forget I’m subject to Earth’ and ‘My legs tingle with messages’. As Horrocks moves through landscapes, his mind roams: ‘The autumn sun is fierce… What would be the thoughts of a sun?’ And Horrocks knows he is only a visitor here: ‘Before the last batteries run out, this scout / will report to base: This is the world I saw’.

In Consciousness, Horrocks has assembled one hundred stand-alone sentences simply called ‘descriptions’ that read as isolated statements and explanations — to ponder and place in a suitable context. Some examples are ‘Primal soup, bubbling’, ‘A dark, quiet corner in which you spin a web’, ‘The secret reservoir of greed, lust, envy and rage that you carry like a concealed suicide vest’, ‘An iPhone permanently out of range’. It seems that we are nothing without our sensory gifts and the desire to interact with the world.

In Body, Horrocks discusses the relationship with the mind. ‘It would be simpler if body and mind were not / an odd couple, a de facto marriage of opposites’, he says, but also acknowledges a balance: ‘The mind sings, the body supplies the beat’. Our own physicality is inescapable: ‘decades of cut hair, nails, dead skin, sweat, urine and blood…’ The issue of sexual desire is succinctly dealt with: ‘Desire can be a torment, but it is also a means of giving the body its due, its just desserts’. According to Horrocks, ‘The mind and body seldom coincide except / when sex coaches you in carnal knowledge’. Considering the significant, often life-changing pull on the behaviour of humans that sex has, I would like to have seen Horrocks dedicate a whole section to sex. Here, Horrocks also gives space to the topic of illness. There are some lovely stanzas, including powerful lines such as ‘I have shivered in the frost of cancer’. You almost want to cheer as he hits out against artificial-intelligence: ‘That we are dressed in flesh with brains of meat / rather than metal adds the colours and flavours / of a chaos that no robot or algorithm can know’.

Horrocks discussed the issue of Language under a subtitle, “The Daybook”. The process of writing, and reasons for doing so could take up far more space, but here is a sprinkling of the author’s experiences and points of view: ‘Writing is like walking, wandering along a line / though I often pause to retrace a step’. Writing is also ‘a thankless compulsion but as bold as alchemy’. Horrocks manages to look outside himself, at other writers, reporting on their own current immersions. He seems disappointed with much of contemporary poetry — being trapped in the irony of ‘our sceptical age’. According to Horrocks, poets now ‘distance themselves from beauty and directness’.

The Melancholia section is set out as a narrative of a boy’s life, focusing on some intensely self-conscious moments of ‘education’ about people and the world around him — the hurtful and/or embarrassing kind that usually are locked in the memory forever. For example, ‘Soon he is old enough to throw stones / at birds, until his favourite uncle catches / and punishes him’ and ‘The first time he feels ice in his veins / is the day two older boys grab him… and force him, kicking and crying…’ How much of this is autobiographical is uncertain, but it is very convincing, nonetheless: ‘He feels he has little in common with his parents… how can his parents be so casual, reducing God / to a Sunday routine?’ Teenage angst reigns over him, including a flirtation with ending his life: ‘He is jubilant when a book begins: There is but one / truly serious philosophical question and that is suicide’. I think this is one of the most powerful sections in this book — dealing with the universal quest of every young, intelligent person — the search for ‘answers’ and the truth about people around them. We are not all blessed with the gift of optimism. For this boy, ‘the world will always retain an odd / ambience, a taint of the arbitrary, mysteries not solved / but shelved’.

Self contains an engaging investigation by Horrocks, of what it is ‘to be’ — in the physical / mental settings of the world he knows. Rimbaud’s famous ‘Je est un autre’ (‘I is somebody else’) is called up here — the idea that the self is something of an illusion, unknown. Horrocks pretty much shuts it down, having lived in his body for a good long while (‘My cargo is close to bursting – years of sights / and smells, ideas and anxieties, mistakes and regrets’), and prefers to acknowledge that this ‘friendly and familiar ghost… this stick figure footman’ plays a real, if small, part in life. As a closing statement, he adds: ‘The self is the vehicle of our lives, a complex, rickety / contraption often with a mind of its own’.

In Micro / Macro, Horrocks asks: ‘How to elude vertigo?’and ‘How to grasp inhuman scale?’ In Sleeping and Waking: ‘How to reduce the assertion of myself, the friction of surfaces, the pressure of time?’

The final three sections, Death, Evolution and Gods, bring this fascinating poem/essay to a close. Horrocks stares at the inevitable ‘end’ and declares ‘Death is a oncer which no one can foresee / We contemplate it from many angles…’ He remembers his boyhood cowboy-andwar comics that were filled with death scenes, sparking one notably terrific image: ‘…their spasm of blood and guts rendered stylish / by the Ben-Day dots’. Horrocks mentions a few unlikely / unlucky deaths, too — e.g. ‘Aeschylus flattened by a tortoise dropped by an eagle / who mistook his head for a rock’. He recounts a personal health-scare that made him appreciate life even more. At the top of his ‘bucket-list’ is ‘my wish… to live long enough to understand’.

Horrocks’s Evolution stanzas include talking about a tree he once planted as a seedling, his aging cat, and the ‘elephant in the room’ — his computer. He asks a prescient question: ‘Will the outcome / not be evolution but the first complete break / with the story of DNA – artificial intelligence as a metal / and plastic emptiness, a desert of silenced neurons?’

The final section, Gods, begins with the question: ‘Why in heaven did God decide to create the world?’ And so begins a recounted (Christian) religious quest. Horrocks was ‘desperate to know’ the truth at thirteen, and Bible class had a profound effect on him, where Horrocks questioned and shocked his peers: ‘If God only wanted faith, / why give us so strong an appetite for questions?’ His minister was ‘adamant that the only motive for creating the world was kindness – to bless believers with the joys of nature, fellowship, and family’. Reading these passages reminded me of the young Arthur Rimbaud sticking it to the church in 19th-century France, although there’s no hint here of a slide into decadent bohemianism. Horrocks ultimately could not stand God’s ‘disregard for collateral damage’ and so left the ‘congregation’ to think on his own – ‘God shrank / gradually to human proportions…’

There are some highly engaging passages that tell of his spiritual considerations in adulthood, e.g. ‘The church shines its spotlight on earthly things… but daylight reduces / the stage to a tawdry set… popes and patriarchs, gurus / and ayatollahs still shout stage directions’. Many readers would probably like to discuss this material with Horrocks. I know I would. We are left with his ‘openended epitaph’: ‘Kilroy was (briefly) here… still a citizen of the biosphere, not eager to disappear… he no longer pins his hopes on prayer / His faith is simply (simply?) to be aware.’

There is something rather brave, heroic — and even generous, about this collection, this ‘poem’ by Horrocks. It will, hopefully, be read by a wide demographic. It’s probably pitched for his peers — the aging Baby-Boomer generation, but it has much content that is relevant to far younger audiences, too. And it’s rich in humanity. What a mind Horrocks has. He’s such a thoughtful person, he even acknowledges that some of his views on death and religion may not sit well with people from different beliefs and customs. This ‘ghost in the machine’ has sung a very memorable song. You never know what someone is thinking, when they walk past you in the street.