Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 5, Number 3, September 2011

Michael McClintock
Clovis, California, USA


Unnatural Amber


all day in spring,
deer cross the high meadow
into the clouds

I came down from my tiny writing cabin in the mountains to accompany my friend George to the annual "Battle of the Robots" event at a small park in downtown Los Angeles. The place was surrounded by skyscrapers and next to a massive old cathedral. George, who teaches engineering and applied physics at the California Institute of Technology, lures me to the spectacle each spring. The contest engages the minds of students who are likely someday to see Jupiter rise over the frozen oceans of Europa, or to examine strange, broken, wall-like formations far back in some Martian canyon of the Nirgal Vallis rift.

But now, here, they create and fight small robot monstrosities intended to stop, dismember, and destroy other small robot monstrosities, the combat taking place within an area the size and shape of a boxing ring.

"Don't pull that poetic sensitivity crap with me," George says. "You know it fascinates you, but you don't know enough about it to be a pessimist. Each year you try to figure it out, but can't. Your poetic knowledge of the world shudders at the thought of raw conflict. What use is your poetry in this context?"

"Shut the hell up, George."

But he had a point. I thought gloomily of a poem I had written a few weeks back, on a tangent theme:

a shining world—
dew drops for the duckling
and the beetle it eats

I'd shown George that poem.



We took our seats on high bleachers and watched the mechanical slaughter through opera glasses.

All of the combatant machines appeared to be based on insectoid models, except one. The exception was a beautiful, gleaming white sphere, about eighteen inches in diameter. I searched through the printed program and found its description. It was named "Amber" and had been made by a team of paleontology, engineering and chemistry students. Its combat strategy was purely defensive and non-violent—simply to sit there and do nothing unless attacked. When touched or jostled by an attacker, Amber's designed response was literally to expectorate glue. Chemically, the glue was approximately that of natural amber—the kind paleontologists love to collect and inspect for the twenty-million-year-old bugs preserved within it. The stuff inside Amber, held in a reservoir, dried to hardness in a few seconds upon exposure to the air. A gyroscope mechanism and a few balanced weights within the sphere controlled the ball's movements; simple sound and motion sensors on the outer surface determined when and in what direction the goo would be expelled from a top-mounted spigot onto an adversary.

"Brilliant," I said, reading the program's description. "It intends to glue its enemies to the floor, or to muck up the moving parts of their weapons!"

George fluttered his eyelids and sneered. "The idea's asinine," he said. "Pacifist philosophy does not translate into the natural world, or into physics."

In the first of five elimination rounds, Amber did well by gluing fast to the floor a mean-looking mechanical grasshopper with ice-pick mandibles. The thing had leapt onto Amber's smooth surface, failed to get a grip, and fell off to its doom. It twitched just a few moments before becoming immobile in a glob of the maple-colored, unnatural amber. By winning just that one round, Amber went from one of thirty-two battling robots to one of sixteen.

"Pure luck," said George. The man was clearly surprised.



city towers
brighten and dim
a gusting wind

The remaining sixteen paired off for the second round. Amber drew a match with a flat, segmented, worm-like device that destroyed its victims by getting under them, then flexing and flipping them over onto their backs. George scowled as we watched Amber handle that little horror with ease, gluing its head to the floor in seconds after the beast's first onslaught: it had no way at all of upsetting a sphere.

Amber was suddenly one of eight finalists. I could see alarm on George's face. His confident world was getting a shake and a goose-feather up the nose.



new ones appear
as others pass—
spring clouds

A light rain fell as the third round began. Amber was paired off against a monster whose one weapon was a buzz saw on a flexible proboscis-like appendage coming out of the center of a turtle-like body. The monster shot across the floor and cut through Amber like a melon. It was over in seconds—but for both of them. Amber died in a fountain of its own fluid, which likewise gushed over the monster turtle, puddling it and affixing it firmly to the floor. Officially, the contest between the two was a draw; of course, neither machine went on to the next round.

"What did I tell you?" George said, blinking at me. I thought he looked like a turtle at that moment. The rain had ceased; it was sunny again.

"Wait until next year, you gas bag," I said. "A few tweaks, and Amber is going to give you a new lesson in physics, pal. It already has. Do the math."

And of course he knew I was right. Just the concept alone had defeated three-quarters of the field that day. Poetic sensitivity, indeed.

the hiss
of a broom
on wet cement


"Unnatural Amber" first appeared in Frogpond XXV:3, Fall 2002. A version of the poem "all day in spring" first appeared in the World Haiku Review, March 2002; "a shining world—" first appeared in Modern Haiku, Summer 2002.



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