Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Edison's Insomnia

Academic journal article The Virginia Quarterly Review

Edison's Insomnia

Article excerpt

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. …

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