The Uncles

 Overview

Don’t panic! I didn’t understand half of the vocabulary as well, but the poems is doing it deliberately, the cheeky little rascal!

This poem explores the alternatively intellectual kingdom of the mechanic of engineer, represented by the uncles in the poem. Their practical know how and smarts are contrasted with the dirt and grim of their professions. However, the technical language associated with the various engines parts and mechanical bits and bobs is meant to leave a traditional intellectual, an academic, confused and out of their depth.

As such the poem showers respect and love on the uncles despite them representing an entirely different world to the one we (as students) and Goodby inhabit.

Mini-Glossary
camshaft – a bar in an engine.
gimbel – some mechanism for keeping bits in place.
crank – a lever you turn to make something start.
Swarfega – a type of heavy duty handwash good for getting oil off hands.
swarf – 
small bits of metal left over after drilling or filing.
scobs – waste material from metal.
gunmetal – dark gray/black metallic substances.
lithe – moving and bending in a graceful way.
lathe – a machine that spins wood.
emigre – someone who has settled abroad for political reasons.
flange – part of a pipe.
chamfered – carpentry term meaning cut away.

Uncles, talking the camshaft or the gimbel connected
to a slowly oscillating crank. The Uncles Brickell,
Swarfega kings, enseamed with swarf and scobs, skin
measled with gunmetal but glistening faintly, loud
in the smoke. Lithe and wiry above the lathe, milling out
a cylinder to a given bore. Uncles, pencil-stubs at their ears,
spurning ink, crossing sevens like émigré intellectuals,
measuring in thous and thirty-secondths (scrawled
on torn fag-packets); feinting with slide rules, racing,
but mild not as mild steel. Pockets congested, always. Uncles
with dockets for jobs, corners transparent with grease,
with a light machine oil. Time-served, my Uncles, branch-
ing out into doorhandles, grub-screws and the brass bits
that hold the front of the motor case to the rear flange
of the mounting panel. Release tab. Slightly hard of hearing
now, the Uncles, from the din of the shop, slowly nodding.
Uncles in ‘Red Square’; uncles swapping tolerance gauges,
allan keys, telephone numbers, deals and rank commun-
ism. Forefingers describing arcs and cutting angles. White
and milky with coolants and lubricants, mess of order. Never
forgetting to ply a broom after. The missing half-finger, not
really missed any longer, just a banjo-hand gone west. My
Uncles still making a go of mower blades, on the road
at their age; offering cigars at Christmas. Uncanny if
encountered in visors, overalls, confounding nephews
in dignity of their calling, their epoch-stewed tea. Stand
a spoon in all their chamfered years, cut short or long. Uncles
immortal in the welding shed, under neon, lounge
as the vast doors slide to a cool blue desk. My Uncles.

John Goodby (1958-)

Analysis
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Our first poem and it’s by a living poet! Always interesting, I hope one day one of them will come across my notes about their work and tell me I’m a massive idiot.

Dr John Goodby is an academic teaching at the University of Swansea in Wales. As you might expect his subject is Literature with a particular connection to Welsh and Irish poetry. He’s also turned his hand to poetry himself and has written a couple of award-winning poems, including this one which won the Cardiff International Poetry Award in 2006.

Unfortunately that’s about as much of a biography as I can supply, unless you want to have a quick read of his staff profile on the university website.

 

 Themes

With this selection CIE have been pretty helpful with their section headings. This is about relationships with family and in particular is about the respect and admiration Goodby has for the uncles, despite their lives representing the polar opposite to his life.

Content

The whole poem is basically a description of some greasy engineering/mechanic types. We start with listening to them talking about things we don’t understand, before studying their freshly scrubbed hands and messy everything else shrouded in the smoky atmosphere of their workshop.

They are up to some task drilling a piece of metal and doing their calculations on scrap of paper and cigarette packets. Their pockets are teeming with useful bits and bobs so that they are prepared for any task. We hear how they are deafened by the machinery around them and how they swap, but still seem to be able to communicate about what thingymajigs they need from each other and their extremely left wing politics.

Their workshop is painted as organised chaos before we move onto the image of a long lost finger (presumably bitten off by one of their noisy machines), which is treated nonchalantly as if its absence were nothing.

The poem ends with a really lovely reflection on Goodby’s impression of them as being alternative intellectuals able to stupefy him with their knowledge of the real and practical world and esteemed in their environment. This stands in contrast to the perceived view of the more practically minded amongst us as somehow being of inferior intellect to the book smart.

Language and techniques

Starting with the title, we can see from the uses of the generalised pronoun ‘the’ that Goodby means for the ideas in this poem to be recognised by others and it is not solely a personal description or exploration. This means that we are meant to understand these traits and the message of the poem in our context.

However, later in the poem it becomes clear that the ideas have been generated from his own experience as ‘the’ becomes ‘my’ and presumably ‘The Uncles Brickell’ tells us that these figures in the poem are based upon his maternal uncles (I do not know that Brickell was his mother’s maiden name, but if they are his uncles and don’t share his surname then it is just common sense).

The most crucial thing to deal with here is the use of a semantic field of engineering and mechanical terminology. You’ll have seen from my glossary just how many confusing and unfamiliar terms there are in this poem, particularly for someone who is more academically minded and doesn’t have much experience of the practical and hands on world of mechanics: ‘camshaft… gimbel… crank’ … I could go on for a while. Considering this is a poem whose primary audience is of a scholarly persuasion, the language is confusing and leaves us scratching our heads. Goodby actually actively wants this as he wants to dismiss the idea of academia representing superior intellect. Notice how towards the end of the poem he talks about the uncles ‘confounding nephews’, which surely is a nod to his inability to understand a thing they talk about.

The poem also employs a huge amount of really satisfying sensory imagery to present the contradictory world that they live in. He sets the uncles up as ‘émigré intellectuals’ and as supremely knowledgeable men ‘slowly nodding’ in deep appreciation and understand of this language that is leaving us confused. However, this is achieved against a backdrop of disorder, mess and chaos. These clever buggers are covered in grease and dirt, with ‘skin measled with gunmetal’ and are ‘slightly hard of hearing’ thanks to the din of machinery, with only their hands clean as ‘Swarfega kings’ suggests they have at least scrubbed the oil off for now.

They are organised, but only to themselves amongst what would be considered chaos by anyone else. When Goodby talks about ‘pockets congested’ we have a clear image of all the different, useful knicknaks that have been stuffed in just in case they could be needed, while their calculations are ‘scrawled on torn fag-packets’, which would appear to anyone else to be disorganisation at its finest. In fact Goodby even goes so far as to call it a ‘mess of order’, an oxymoron, suggesting the contradiction between their level of intellect within their realm of expertise and the traditional image of academic intelligence and organisation.

Goodby serves these deliberately jarring images to make us, as poetry readers, a little uncomfortable with the environment, in a similarly way to his use of technical terminology relating to machinery, to make us feel stupid and out of our depth. If you consider the right-angled writing desk and pen pots of academia (when you get to university you will see this is a very witty joke!), or the business world, then you’ll recognise the complete contrast.

The reason he has done this is to shine a light on this world and show how much he respects this different world and his uncles who inhabit it. They are practical men who get on despite the perceived chaos, even ‘missing half a finger’ (presumably through a horrific accident with their machinery) is a problem just shrugged off and ‘not really missed any longer’.

Although Goodby is a highly educated Professor of Literature he recognises and respect their expertise as equal or even superior in some respects. He describes the uncles as ‘uncanny’ and ‘confounding’ when they are in their own world, suggesting he is left in awe by their understanding and knowledge and feels insignificant and their intellectual inferior in this regard.

My favourite part of the poem that demonstrates this respect and awe comes in the last two-three lines. They are described as ‘immortal… under neon’, which presents this beautiful image of them working away in the workshop, illuminated by the neon flares of some welding or cutting machinery. It is almost as if they are glowing with divine light. This is done deliberately to give us a clear view of Goodby admiration for them as if they are gods in their field of life.

This ‘immortal[ity]’ could also be seen to represent more than just his uncles. Remember the poem started with an everyman approach meaning that we should all be able to connect personally with it. Clearly his uncles aren’t immortal, but perhaps this type of contrasting person will always exist and represent an opposite, but just as intelligent side of the world away from academia.

You should also mention how the ending with just the words ‘My Uncles’ forces us to dwell on this image in a reflective and appreciative way.

I’m sure someone will ask me about the ‘Red Square’ and ‘rank communism’ elements of the poem. I’ve not taken it to be hugely significant, but communism has always been considered to be a working class movement (despite the rich ponces who ruin universities by spouting nonsense about it) and whose heart was in factories and workshops. Thus these men discuss these ideas, but not in any meaningful way or with any intent, it merely represents their position in the world and links to stereotypes of the working class.

Structure

This poem stands as a statue to the none-intellectual. The structure reflects this perfectly as enjambment and caesura are used liberally throughout with no rhyme or reason. There is no rhyme scheme, all the ideas are squashed into one mega 29 line stanza. This combines together to reflect the disorder of this alternative existence and how little time it has for following rules of poetry that represents an alien world.

Tone

I think the poem is read in a sort of dishevelled manner. It constantly flits from one idea to the next, which helps to convey the sense of chaos and disorder in the workshop. However, towards the end it becomes clear that this is reverential and demonstrates deep respect, coupled with confusion, when considering this other world.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

7 thoughts on “The Uncles”

  1. Notice how the word “uncles” occurs 10 times and a third person plural pronoun occurs only 4 times. This is how much regard he has for them: he acknowledges their worth by using the term “uncles” rather than imply referring to them as “they”.

    1. Haha, it’s a lovely idea, that’s what it is.

      Notice in the full sentence it is ‘The missing half-finger, not really missed any longer, just a banjo-hand gone west.’ Basically this uncle has lost part of his finger, no doubt through all his mechanical tinkering, but it was so long ago that it is now just a part of him as if he can no longer quite play the banjo with any kind of speed. An odd expression, but I think a relatively common one. If something ‘goes west’ it means that it no longer works.

      Cheers,

      Mr Sir

  2. Could the end “My Uncles” signify the poet’s child-like admiration and pride towards “his” mechanics?

    1. I think the whole things shows admiration for a different type of intellectualism. What specifically are you thinking about?

      1. Doesn’t it also reveal a sort of possessiveness is what I meant to say. That these Uncles are exclusively “his” and he is personally proud of them?

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