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The Song of How We Believe

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

Thomas Edison … tried to invent a machine
for communicating electronically with the dead.
—Wendy Kaminer

Give us an incisor, and we’ll rationally conjecture
an entire prehistoric head, to the glint
in its eyes and in the light along its scaled skin
—but first, we need that tooth, that seed
by which the flowers of our waking dreams can feel
tightly tamped in a logical soil. No doubt Edison
and his backers were emboldened every time a wire sizzled
with another blue effusion from its tip, or an electrode
danced, for the blink of an eye, with its tiny geyser of power …
this was real, not the goosey, gassy mediumship
of a biddy in a muumuu squinting weird and talking
half-an-octave lower; no, this was something even
a financier investor could touch and measure and imagine,
therefore, owning: gears for powwows with the dead! We need
one promissory rivet to roll in our fingers, as real
as any coin or lucky charm—just one, but then the whole blueprinted
river-spanning bridge will rise inside our heads with a gritty actuality
you could spraypaint your initials on. Already we can see
the ribbon-cutting and the years of use and rust. And he?
—rolled up in grief, in bed, can he believe a bridge exists
between his life now and his parents’ recent deaths?—the one
to cancer in the spring, and the other later that summer as if
a swimmer who couldn’t resist the pull of the sinking ship?
He curls to an insular ball. And she? beside him, she
can sense this fraying length of marriage thin another micron
off itself, and shiver in the chilly flux of chance. She wakes
up early enough to see the tea-rose smudge of dawn, she asks
the sky or the gods or the future for … for what

initiating doodle toward a strategy by which they might survive
this parlous time? What nanospeck? What fossil bacterium?
“If you laid out all the acknowledged hominid specimens, they
would barely fill a tennis court”—but offer just one knuckle-chip
to guide us as a baseline, and we’ll build up to the thoughts that once
soaked slowly in their cranial compote, and we’ll compute
digestion quotients for the marrow licked from every last cracked-open bone
like a jam. And likewise every last anachronistic wonder
of the faux-colonial village will take shape and be solid and covered
in a beckoning seventeenth-century verisimilitude: every “witch jar”
filled with urine and pins, every post-set pen with its redolent
population of pigs, and the circle of happily chattering thatchers
in the Massachusetts sun … but first, one artificial wormhole
in an oak shelf, serving to germinate things. Edison
already (1891) had patented the radio; and proved
the human voice could be stored up, like a soup, in a cylinder,
for future use; and was well on his way to the 1910 “kinetograph feature”
Frankenstein (and Edison’s was arguably the first true movie studio) …
how easy it must have been then to believe
how, on that bedrock, we could tinker into creation a river
of such adept electroconversation, it would carry us
into the realm of the shades (where even brave Odysseus shrank
in terror) to speak, with a clarity, and with an equal clarity
be spoken to in turn. In this same way, that woman thinks
they have a bedrock: hasn’t each of them been married once
before?—they have a history of errors they can learn from,
and can learn away from, into something stronger. So
one afternoon she accompanies him to the cemetery: here,

his parents: okay, let some razzle-dazzle healing start.
And can we imagine its taking place? If we’re given
an early pebble or photon or chromosome of its taking place.
In ancient Japan, the emperor had a “dream hall” in his palace:
he would sleep there on a special polished stone
and then “the voices”—often the dead—would advise him
on matters of state. Can we believe it? The stone is a technology:
a sign, a link. And even now, the dead may be ready
to offer our couple their best idea on compromise and closeness
in a marriage. Can we picture it? If we’re given
a symbol for picturing it. If they stand there and hug on the verge
of those graves and, just as in some comic book’s scenario,
an electric lightbulb beams forth over their troubled heads.


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