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Edison’s Insomnia

ISSUE:  Summer 2001

As the early-evening Metroliner slows
and sidles at dream-flight height
through the apocalyptic back lots
and whistle stops of New Brunswick
and Metuchen and Menlo Park, I think
of the insomnia of Thomas Edison,
awake at 2 AM, his cot shoved
against a rack of galvanic batteries
in the gas-lit den of his laboratory.
Some of the men are still at work
on his latest rush of ideas—boiling up
insulating compounds, experimenting
with vacuums—while Edison scribbles
in a notebook another deft, driven ink drawing:
florid, fecund and amoebic improvisations
on his notions for the spiral burner, and the invention
that will become his “big bonanza,”
the electric light. But this is boy culture—


it’s not all progress—and a litter of cheap cigar stubs
and sandwich crusts clutters the tabletop
of burners and spectroscopes. It’s paddle
your own canoe
, and late-night pranks—
bets on who can produce the highest voltage
on a hand-cranked generator, guzzling beer
into their black bear mascot, or rigging
an induction coil to the washstand to shock
the German glassblower. And as the train
lurches past the strung-up streetlamps
of outer Elizabeth, each one-legged
in its own pool of spotlit asphalt,
I consider the insomnia of the first Mrs. Edison,
Mary Stillwell—whose name Mr. E once
dismissively doodled into “stillsick”—alone
for years of nights under her moon-drained
counterpane, a revolver under her pillow,
before she died of “congestion of the brain.”
On the verge of night like this, gliding
toward the city through the radiant, industrial
hamlets of chemical plants, past blacked-out
yards of abandoned, blown-windowed, turn-of-the-century
factories, and then, beyond
sumac, glimpses of sub-shops and gas stations
and neon-edged corner bars—passing through
this way, it is possible to believe in coal
and drills and clocks, in the America of grist-mills,
smokestacks, and gears, of escapements
and steam engines—of foundries and forges
and shops—and in our fathers, in droves
from the tract houses, who rode these rails out
each dawn, to the labs and offices
of Westinghouse and General Electric,
Con Edison and Merck,
and then rode them back again each night
to families moored in fragile, incandescent rooms.
There’s the skyline now, ablaze and looking—

for all its steepled, invisible rave of technospur
and cyberwave—like the complex, constellar
circuitry of the inside of something.
I learned in school that the nation
extinguished itself for one dark, full, silent
minute that October that he died. And here’s
the glare-shattered river, the bridge, the strum
and hurtle of light through girders, then the earth,
blasted open to admit and halt us.


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