Somewhere in Time


Tuesday, August 13, In the Year of Our Lord 1895

Dear Wells, despite your sober apprehension,
I’m grateful that you’ve granted me the boon
Of borrowing your brilliant new invention.
I plan to use it Sunday afternoon.
I share your fears that changing past events
Might harm the present. I’ll not take that chance.
I’ll simply speak with Claire in penitence
Before her accidental death. One dance,
One story told, one last embrace, one kiss.
Then I’ll return with not one fact amiss.


Friday, October 20, In the Year of Our Lord 1882

I’ve traveled back in time! My Claire’s so young!
I almost cannot breathe to see her live—
The way she laughs, her scent, her silver tongue;
A last embrace I’ve waited years to give.
Claire doesn’t have a clue that death awaits
And that our precious time is almost through.
I’m tormented to know our painful fates
Must manifest so soon, our days so few!
She chatters on so wittily, so clever,
And does not grasp we do not have forever.


Sunday, August 18, In the Year of Our Lord 1895

I fixed events so that the blasted carriage
Which lost control and caused Claire’s death was caught.
I saved my love and thus preserved our marriage.
But now, back in the present, I’m distraught
For everything is wrong! My ailing wife
Has polio and can no longer walk.
My son, who should enjoy a banker’s life
Is now a drunkard and can barely talk.
I changed the past—now everything’s awry.
I must go back. Once more my Claire must die.


Sunday, October 22, In the Year of Our Lord 1882

The street was very crowded near The Strand
With tony people dressed up to the nines;
The pavement scarcely left us room to stand
And those who wished to cross took turn in lines.
Claire lost all patience—it was half-past five
And she had obligations, so she walked
Into the street—Her last act while alive
Was wave to me. But then some horses balked.
The driver lost control, the carriage sped
Unbridled. Now my darling Claire is dead.


A Letter from the Future (Date Unknown)

Dear Wells, destroy your devilish machine!
The smallest interference in the past—
A single word, disruptions of routine—
Can break the things to which a man holds fast.
Instead of weeping over what took place
We must make time count now! Redeem the truth.
Show love, don’t miss a kiss or fond embrace.
Life’s wasted yearning for a better youth.
A time machine works best, I must avow,
When it’s not needed. Change things here and now.



Brian Yapko is a lawyer who also writes poetry. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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32 Responses

  1. Michael Pietrack

    Life’s wasted yearning for a better youth.

    Great job Brian!

    I especially liked this line. Thanks for posting…

  2. Paul Freeman

    I agree with Michael. That last stanza holds a lot of wisdom.

    Thanks for the read, Brian. HG Wells is one of my favourite writers. A real visionary.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Paul! Yes, Wells really was a pioneer. Imagine writing The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man! He basically invented science fiction.

      • Paul Freeman

        Not to mention ‘The War in the Air’ and ‘The Land Ironclads’, presaging aerial and tank warfare.

        And something amazing. Woody Allen’s ‘Sleeper’ is based on Wells’s ‘The Sleeper Awakes’. I noticed the similarity between the film and the book, contacted the HG Wells Society on a whim a couple of years ago and they had to consult their HG Wells guru on the matter! But it came back affirmative.

      • Brian Yapko

        This is great info, Paul! I’ve never heard of these other stories and so I will go ahead and order them. As for Sleeper — that’s amazing! I remember seeing that movie literally 50 years ago. I was a kid so most of it went over my head. I’ll make a point of watching it again now.

  3. Cheryl Corey

    The imagination of your poetry equals that of the movie, which is one of my favorites.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Cheryl! I love “The Time Machine” too. Particularly, the Rod Taylor movie from 1960 which I liked a lot more than the recent Guy Pearce remake which, incidentally, was directed by Simon Wells, H.G.’s great grandson.

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Wow, what an amazing group of poems! The use of an epistolary form with shortened (ten-line) sonnets works perfectly, and the narrative line is absolutely clear. The metrics, the rhymes, and the diction are expertly done.

    Clarity, intelligence, non-opaque statement, rational discourse — are these things not what we mean when we talk of “classical poetry”? Great work, Brian.

    • Brian Yapko

      Joseph, this generous comment has left me speechless. The manner of story-telling in this poem was a bit of a risk, so I’m extremely pleased that it worked for you. Thank you.

  5. Yael

    Brilliant! I love the character development which takes place with the narrator. Even though he has all good intentions from start to finish he figures out how wrong he was and why. Amazingly, though the time travel is into the past, you very quickly and efficiently build up the suspense over the unknown, drawing the reader right into the story. One of my favorite features is that the moral of your story comes through loud and clear and succinct without being preachy or moralizing. Great job!

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Yael. I’m glad you were able to follow the narrator’s somewhat non-linear progression and that the theme of the poem came through without being too heavy. One of the things I wanted to highlight was the narrator succumbing to temptation and then breaking his own promise not to interfere with the past — even if it was for a good reason. But, of course, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Brian, I believe this is one of your finest works. As always, you bring a heartfelt immediacy to every adeptly wrought image, lifting cleverly crafted words from the page to bring a filmic quality to each gripping scene. Your ability to breathe life into words through your first-person perspective is remarkable. That brilliant, new time-traveling invention is the perfect vehicle to convey a vital message set out beautifully in the final stanza… and I absolutely love the fact you were so precise with dates until the closing stanza. For me, that “Date Unknown” tells me how insignificant time is when it comes to life playing out the way it’s meant to, with no God-playing intervention from man. I appreciate the workings of a fine imagination and the painstaking craft that has gone into this. Every line you’ve sweated has paid off tenfold. This is a firm favorite of mine.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you, Susan! I’m so deeply pleased by your comment and even more grateful for your support and encouragement in my progress as a poet. I do love writing first person narratives. I think, if I had it to do over, I would have tried my hand at playwright because I like getting into people’s characters and trying to figure out what they would say and think in a given situation.

      I’m especially pleased that you zeroed in on those dates. I actually googled the calendars for 1895 and 1882 to make sure I got the days and dates lined up accurately. That last missive from the future… I wanted the reader to ponder the speaker’s sad, lonely fate wandering the future. I felt that if I had put a specific date, it would have blunted the impact of his sad destiny and it would have overly-limited the message. Although this is set in Victorian times I did not want this poem to be dismissed as a mere “period piece.” I aimed for a message that would have general application.

  7. Norma Pain

    I thoroughly enjoyed this back and forth dance with time travel. Thank you Brian.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Norma! I worried about how the nonlinear chronology would be received and am glad to hear that it was actually enjoyable!

  8. Joshua C. Frank

    Brian, this is one of my favorite ones you’ve done so far. I especially love the last 6 lines. In reality, that’s how it works; Divine Providence is what it is, regardless of the works of man, so if there were time travel, we couldn’t change the past (though we could cause things that have already happened, in a kind of causal loop, like with Biblical prophecies).

    Claire having to die reminds me of the Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever” where Captain Kirk faces the same dilemma with his new love interest.

    This one is great, keep up the good work!

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Josh! I’m especially pleased to hear that this is one of your favorites as it is for me as well — a blend of my two favorite literary things: poetry and science fiction. Your bringing Divine Providence into the discussion is really meaningful. Ever since Einstein’s two Theories of Relativity made time travel a scientifically respectable subject of discussion, scientists have posited all sorts of paradoxes (e.g. what happens if you go back in time and kill your grandfather and thereby prevent your own birth? Then who killed the grandfather? ) and problems with time travel which they say cannot be resolved, or that the Universe has some sort of failsafe mechanism which prevents time paradoxes, or which can only be resolved by invoking a multiverse in which everything that can happen does, including the consequences of altering a past timeline. But if Divine Providence is in charge, the need for all of these tortured explanations becomes moot. It really becomes the most logical explanation for the prevention of paradoxes. What is meant to be will be.

      I love your invocation of Star Trek, a show which I love. I didn’t plan it that way, but I can see the similarity between Claire and poor Joan Collins. If I had a literary inspiration for this poem (other than the obvious H.G. Wells novel) it was the deeply moving third act of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” in which one of the married protagonists, Emily Gibbs, who has died young is given the opportunity to relive one day of her life and yet know the fate of all of the loved ones with whom she interacts. Because the people she interacts with don’t know the future, they have no idea how near they are to death and tragedy. Their lack of gratitude and wonder at life shatters Emily and she gladly returns to the cemetery wondering at how sad it is that the living don’t realize how blessed they are:

      “It goes so fast” she cries. “We don’t have time to look at one another.” In tears she asks the Stage Manager, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it? Every, every minute?” He replies, “No, the saints and the poets maybe… they do some.”

  9. C.B Anderson

    This is one of the strangest poems I have ever read. As an avid reader of science fiction (especially in years past), I have read probably hundreds of time travel stories and novels. At a symposium at Wesleyan University on science fiction some fifty years ago, Samuel Delaney was asked whether he thought science fiction was a genre of true literature, and he answered, “No. Literature is a genre of science fiction.” A certain amount of mystery is a necessary feature of any fictive artifact, and you have done well to choose Wells’ proto-SF as a subject for a poem sequence.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thanks for your comment, CB! Hopefully, a good strange (i.e. eccentric!) It is indeed one of my strangest but it was also great fun to try my hand at a period-set poem that told a sci-fi story. And I chose this unique form because the story needed to unfold more or less contemporaneously as the speaker encounters new facts and insights. I’m glad you approve the choice of Wells and his fictional invention as the catalyst for this tale.

    • Brian Yapko

      What a trippy comment! Howdy back. I’ll take “fine versifyin'” as a compliment and say thank you.

  10. Margaret Coats

    Brian, this is a fascinating story. However, I’m not in accord with those who immediately understood it. You did well to give a precise date for the first four dizains, because with that I comfortably put the narrative together after three readings. I think the disoriented chronology–with the need to figure out what had happened and then how the Time Machine had changed it–contribute to the reader’s [probable] agreement that use of the Machine is dangerous. We all make constant adjustments to events of our lives in their temporal sequence. We make something satisfying out of whatever happens. In actual experience, we know we have to do this because we can’t change the past, and need to move on without undue wishes that something might have been different.

    Your dizain sequence allows the speaker to disrupt his own life in one thing he wants to change. He prevents the accident that killed his young wife, and we can easily imagine something else (such as the polio you mention) might have saddened the later years she didn’t have in reality. The most interesting touch is that we wonder how Claire’s continued life led her son to become a drunkard rather than a successful banker. It needn’t be her fault, of course. The detail simply implies that changing one thing leads to an entirely altered course of life for the family and the world!

    This sequence shows your master of plot in brevity and in complexity. Each dizain must set up a different situation, usually in eight lines, to allow for comment or summary or impact in the couplet. The final one functions something like an envoi, analyzing the complicated whole. Chronology is particularly complex because of the lack of a final date. Your speaker went back and changed time twice in this fiction. We suppose his second trip back had meant to leave things as they were without the Time Machine. But then why is he so upset in the “envoi”? He seems to have made further errors unintentionally. That’s a possibility for the reader to decide. He has, in any case, learned the profound truth about time machines. We have every possibility of altering the future when we “change things here and now.”

    While this may seem to encourage would-be changers of the future, they too must take care to live in the present. Weeping over the present state of society due to its perceived past sins, and trying to make reparations for the past has limited value–and horrid consequences easy to foresee. Broken windows need to be replaced by those at fault in the present. Beyond that, I refer to “social justice” measures like giving the drunkard son in the poem the immense fortune he should have had as a banker, or encouraging others to consider themselves victims of history. That’s not love in the present and, for many reasons, doesn’t lead to a better future.

    Dizains (10-line poems) were first made into a lyric sequence by Maurice Sceve in his Delie (1544). It is one of the longest of Renaissance love sequences, with 450 poems, mostly in groups of nine. Brian, I have to say that the disorientation of the Renaissance poet-lover bears a strange resemblance to your speaker here. He loses track of time in all the sufferings of love, bemoans the past, bewails the future, and can’t seem to accomplish anything. In fact, he often laments his useless condition, brought about on some long past day by the glance of a lady’s eye.

    Sceve ordinarily uses rhyme scheme ababbccdcd, in effect dividing the poem in half. Your ababcdcdee dizains compact the English sonnet, giving the very different proportion of 8:2 rather than Sceve’s 5:5. And both are different from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s curtal sonnet of 10 and one-fifth lines, where he tries to shrink the Petrarchan sonnet but keep its proportion of 8:6. Your exploration in form shows that English dizains can work as individually crafted blocks of narrative or analysis, less intense and more quickly moving than full-length sonnets. They speed up the increments of the story and prepare for that final dizain giving the sequence a real end (something most unusual in love sequences).

    • Brian Yapko

      Margaret, thank you for this detailed, sensitive and thought-provoking comment which has given me much to chew on. First and foremost, let me thank you for your careful and considerate reading of the work. I understand fully what you mean regarding the chronology of the poem, which I always expected would be a bit of a challenge for the reader. I knew that I wanted to write a poem in a non-linear way, not as a stunt but because that is the psychological reality of this narrator – although the time line itself gets skewed, the development of the narrator, including his increasing anxiety as things go wrong, is the linear frame of reference which I believe matters most. Hence, he goes from exceedingly rational (albeit sentimental) in the first stanza to a man whose travels back and forth leave him so broken that he speaks almost entirely from the heart by the end of the poem. I structured the poem in a non-traditional way for poetry but in a form that has been commonly used in cinema for quite some time, where past and present scenes often intersect in flashbacks and other film techniques.

      “Cinematic” is also how I conceived each stanza, each one something of a film scene all leading up to the climax (the death scene) and then denoument of the piece (the narrator picking up the pieces.) Since this is still a poem, your use of the term “envoi” is probably more correct, but however termed, that final stanza finally brings meaning out of the chaos (both literal and emotional) wrought by interfering with the timeline.

      Why the son became a drunkard, I can’t say. Those 12 years between 1882 and 1895 could have been filled with so many events, disappointments, acts of self-indulgence. What matters, as you point out, is that “[t]he detail simply implies that changing one thing leads to an entirely altered course of life for the family and the world!” And so it is.

      Thank you very much for your kind words about the plotting and pacing of this story. At one point I considered using normal 14-line sonnets and the pacing was just too slow. I don’t think readers would have stuck with the work – especially since the language was a bit dry and Victorian. That led to the dizain form which I simply saw as an abbreviated sonnet (as described in Dr. Salemi’s comment above.) Five stanzas of ten lines each is, I submit, much less intimidating than 5 sonnets. The dizains worked for me in terms of content and pacing and allowed each scene in my poetic “film” to have a satisfying close.

      As for why the speaker is so distraught in the final stanza even though he has set things aright… He has had to watch his wife die a second time! Not only watch her die twice, but he actually had to be the hand that pulled the figurative trigger! He had to return to the past to set things right and to stand by and watch events unfold without interfering even though it must have been agony for him to do so. It was the type of terrible moral obligation that could easily destroy a soul. So when he says “Dear Wells, destroy this diabolical machine” a machine which tempted him to interfere with destiny and which ended up causing him an inhuman amount of grief in the end, trust that he means it!

      Your comments about social justice and righting past wrongs is something I thoroughly agree with. We have reached a point of absurdity in this regard, whether in terms of reparations, or cancelling great historical figures because they turned out to be human. What you say about the banker son and his alternate history as a drunkard is absolutely on point. To what extent do we deny people responsibility for their choices? To take away such responsibility is the height of selfishness, enabling and poor judgment. As I said several poems ago, people get “drunk on compassion” and try to rewrite and repair history to make themselves feel better. It does no one any good.

      I’m quite intrigued by your references to Maurice Sceve, with whom I am unfamiliar, so any similarities are purely coincidental. But you have described enough to make me want an introduction! Lastly, I greatly appreciate your comment concerning my exploration in form. As I said, I wanted to have the poem move along efficiently and without losing the reader’s interest, so it’s good to know that English dizains can work for that purpose!

      Again, Margaret – thank you very much indeed for taking the time to comment so thoroughly and thoughtfully. I’m very grateful.

      • Margaret Coats

        When I spoke of the Renaissance poet-lover, I didn’t mean Maurice Sceve as he presents himself in Delie, but the type character of hundreds of love poets during his time. Sceve is interesting for several reasons, but more for the dizain form than because he managed to create a better story than those found in many love sonnet collections. He was the chief poet of the group in Lyons that included several women. They all praised a love based on exalted virtue. Only recently has Sceve been given credit for celebrating a real woman (Pernette du Guillet, one of his fellow Lyons poets) instead of a philosophical Ideal!

      • Brian Yapko

        Ah, thank you for clarifying this, Margaret. I know so little about the Renaissance poets of France. I would very much enjoy reading some of their works with Sceve now being a logical starting point for me. Your reference to “exalted virtue” sounds a bit like the “courtly love” which drives much Medieval literature.

  11. Jeff Eardley

    Brian, a most enjoyable piece from a great poet. Coming from the HG Wells/ Jules Verne generation, I love the time travel see-saw of this. One of your best works yet. Keep ‘em coming.

    • Brian Yapko

      Thank you very much, Jeff! I tend to think of H.G. Wells as science fiction and Jules Verne as fantasy, but there’s a lot of overlap and they do go hand in hand as pioneers of the form. “The Time Machine” will always be for me the standout, but I’ve also loved “Journey to the Center of the Earth” ever since I was a boy. Wells has some very sharp, unpleasant observations in his works. The Invisible Man is particularly caustic. Verne seems the better natured of the two.

  12. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Fascinating set of poems derived from H.G. Wells “Time Machine” epic story. Masterfully crafted and in the top tier of classical poetry. Superbly worded and rhymed with a clear and distinct message for us all!

  13. David Whippman

    A time travel story in rhyme! Great work, HG would have been proud of you.


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