Love Letter to Brigitte Helm

(Star of the film Metropolis directed in 1926 by Fritz Lang.)

How did you manage it, to play both parts,
both sides of woman it's no longer correct
even to think about? They were metaphors:
the virgin chased by a gloved hand that,
in self-inflicted deformity, no longer feels,
and the most seductive robot wink
in cinema history, out of control,
leading troglodyte saps in ridiculous sabots
to near destruction, inciting dinner-suits
to fisticuffs, murder, suicide,
laughing as the flames of the witch-pyre
lick her to base metal.

Most think that science died, became Death rather,
(despite her ability since then to provide
whiter than white lab coats for acolytes)
at Trinity in '45. Fritz Lang anticipated the event
two decades earlier, burning you on film
the year Baird fumbled in Soho with his discs,
demonstrating dim images of your medium's decline.

Rewind two hundred years. Sir Isaac's light,
celebrated by Pope, is nearly spent.
Such is the afterglow, there's enough for all,
even for Joseph Wright to fill, from a hidden source,
(but we know what it is) the staring eyes,
the first mad scientist's wild medusa hair,
his guests collusive, even the boy
who doesn't care, even the thoughtful,
disapproving frown, too civilised to smash
the dying bird's glass prison, or at least walk out.
Only the girl, who knows enough to know it's wrong,
won't watch, won't hear quiet, glib sophistries,
can save us with her innocence, it seems.

King George reigns over this: the orreries,
air pumps, electric shocking public lectures;
then he goes mad. Modern Prometheus walks on,
and science falls apart. Everything's relative,
light is neither on the one hand
nor the other. John Squire shouts down Pope.
Hawking, from his chair, plucks an arrow,
twists it in spiteful knots and fractures it, so
we don't know where we're going any more, nor when.
We yearn for certainties of gold and mystery,
want labs to be like those we learned at school:
Keep Out until omniscient Teacher permits
entry to familiar mahogany and brass.

Brigitte, you played two stereotypes:
the witch-whore who can't deliver (we noted
the conspicuous absence of a metallic cunt)
and the science-taming maid. We're horrified.
Nasty white scientists wriggling into nature,
scrap the sky-screwing Saturn V and design
a womb called the shuttle. It's a feeble excuse,
a crude setting up of a straw analogy.
Science isn't sex. We're simply afraid of it,
detest its insistence that we grow up
and keep on growing. We want Mummy
to tell us it's safe: Lang knew better
than to let you play that part. We don't.
So we keep the Principia out of print, remind ourselves
Newton was an alchemist, as if that made a point.
In this we've regressed since '26, no longer sure
if we want to play with a hundred and something elements,
and if we weren't happier with four.

© Peter Howard

first published in 'Doors of the Morning', the Sandberg Livesay Award Anthology 1996