Magazine article New Criterion

"Alternating Currents"

Magazine article New Criterion

"Alternating Currents"

Article excerpt

1. Reading in the dark

   Imagine, if you will, a hotel
   room fronting Niagara Falls. Helen
   Keller has been brought here by
   her teacher, Annie Sullivan,
   to meet their good friend Dr. Bell,
   inventor of the telephone,
   who has long worked with the deaf.
   Helen, thirteen, already known
   around the world for having thirsted
   at the well of knowledge in her own
   backyard, where Sullivan had spilled
   water in one hand and spelled
   the word into the other, now
   lets him lift her hand in his
   like a receiver, and gently press
   it flat against the window's ear.

   The glass is cold. And through her splay
   fingers a liquid thunderbolt
   of vibration charges and discharges
   at once, so thrilling in its force
   that she nearly tastes the spray--
   though, one must add, the girl is made
   of words more than of anything
   by now; she feels what she's been told.

   Teacher gave her half the world
   she knows. How to fathom, then,
   the ingratitude that surfaces
   in dreams? At Radcliffe, later, where
   Teacher sits through every class
   and unabsorbedly (for she's
   a medium, a conductor, and what
   greater sacrifice?) transmits
   directly to her charge's hand
   all the professors' lectures, she
   appears sometimes in Helen's nightmares
   as a quarrelsome tormentor,
   driving her to "an abyss, a perilous
   mountain pass or rushing torrent."
   Once "I saw her robed in white
   on the brink of Niagara Falls."
   Her costume seemed to be an angel's.
   When she dropped into the whirlpool,
   Helen, frantic, dove in to pull
   Teacher from danger; the figure wrestled
   out of her arms and swam to shore
   untwinned. And this--the unthinkable
   thoughtlessness of one who loved her--
   was the purest terror.

   But how lucky she is! Instead of toys
   they bring her famous men: William
   James, W. E. B. Du Bois,
   Oliver Wendell Holmes, Mark Twain.
   One day she'll touch Caruso's voice.
   Somebody in Gardner, Maine
   has named a lumber vessel for her.
   Hers is a fate that launched a ship.
   At her fingertips, the Braille
   armies of words amass: she scans
   the Iliad in the original.
   (What is original? She hasn't
   dared to ask since, at eleven,
   a story she had thought she thought
   up wholly by herself had proven
   to be the tale of a "plagiarist.")
   Sometimes she is just as glad
   not to tire Teacher, and will work
   late into the night--but then,
   she writes to kindly Mrs. Hutton,
   "one wearies of the clash of spears
   and the din of battle" No one hears
   the punctured pages turning as
   she soldiers on alone, the blind
   reading the blind: the lovely Helen
   following Homer in the dark.

2. The final problem

   Across the ocean, an oculist,
   Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle,
   plots the ultimate crime. He boasts
   to his mother, "I think of slaying Holmes ...
   & winding him up for good and all.
   He takes my mind from better things."
   Twirling the weapon in his hand,
   he pens the title: "The Final Problem."

   Deflecting blame, perhaps, he sets
   the end on foreign soil. A train
   of reasoning takes Holmes and Watson
   to Switzerland, fleeing that regal
   rival, the "Napoleon
   of crime" the spider in a vile
   network of radiating evil.
   (Too bad. Had Conan Doyle more art, he
   would have created Moriarty
   long before.) Face to face
   at last, detective and nemesis--
   their twin defiance heightened by
   the pointed altitude of the Alps--
   peer at each other in a bliss
   of imminence. The great men tumble
   in a wrestler's grip together
   down the Reichenbach Fall--unseen
   by Watson, who runs up too late.
   Yes, that's very good. He'll call
   helplessly down the abyss
   to hear nothing but his staggered voice
   crack open on the cliffs in echo.

   Yet, blinded by the cataract
   of his invention, Conan Doyle
   can't see the problem isn't final.
   Holmes can no more (the public's logic
   runs) have perished in those falls
   than Falstaff had on the battlefield.
   Or had at rough words of Prince Hal's.
   Like Shakespeare, who obeyed the queen's
   command to resurrect his rascal,
   in time the doctor bows to pressure,
   dries off his hero, sends him home--
   and calls the stories His Last Bow.
   It's not, of course. Some characters
   wake perpetually in the middle
   of their lives: the rooms in Baker Street
   are forever fixed in place
   like letters Holmes speared with a jackknife
   to the mantelpiece; his fiddle
   case is never closed.

   Left unsolved: how a B-plus
   stylist, Conan Doyle, who preferred
   what he called "psychic research" and,
   touchingly gullible, obtuse,
   finished up his own career
   believing in fairies, should have had
   the cool to track down the great sleuth
   within himself, the cynical
   logician who could see in the dark.
   Liar, master of disguise,
   Holmes elegantly cloaks the thin
   transition of two eras: loyal
   subject of The Exalted Person
   (unnameable Victoria), he's
   already prone to modern ills.
   Ennui is The Final Problem--for which
   there's but a seven-percent solution,
   or target-practicing indoors
   (poor Mrs. Hudson!); with the flair
   of one in deep despair, he marks
   the whole wall in a manly Braille:
   "V. R. done in bullet-pocks."

   How in the world could Conan Doyle
   originate a deathless myth?
   "When you have eliminated all
   which is impossible" as Holmes
   repeatedly explains, "whatever
   remains, however improbable,
   must be the truth."

3. Hearing shadows

   President Garfield has been shot,
   and Alexander Graham Bell
   hops on the train for Washington
   to find the bullet. It's lodged somewhere
   in the body of the President,
   and though he's not a medical man,
   Bell hopes to provide a tool.
   His "induction balance" as
   he calls it, like his "photophone"
   is work that follows in a line
   from the telephone--which made his name
   six years ago. Disengaged
   sometimes from himself, he wonders
   if he really had invented it.
   Or was it someone he'd read about?
   That's not a doubt to speak aloud,
   with everybody and his brother
   daring to claim the patent. "The more
   fame a man gets for an invention"
   he once confided to the page,
   "the more does he become a target
   for the world to shoot at."

   The photophone has given him
   a synesthetic thrill he's known
   only in poetry. (And though
   he's far too busy to notice how
   he phrases things, that letter to
   his father last year was poetry.
   "I have been able to hear a shadow,
   and even have perceived by ear
   the passage of a cloud across
   the sun....") Insert selenium
   in the telephone battery; then throw
   light upon it, thus altering
   resistance, and varying the strength
   of the current sent to the telephone.
   An image, then, may have its own
   correspondent sound. Simple.

   "Watson, come here, I want to see you":
   that's all that people can retain,
   tending, as people will, to miss
   the point. It wasn't just Tom Watson
   on the other end of the line,
   it was the Telephone in Real
   Form he'd wired at last to an
   Ideal one floating in his brain.
   The question is if he can do
   the same again: the deadly ball
   sits humming somewhere silently
   for his machine to answer it.

   He's swept into the White House by
   a private entrance. How to enter
   the President's body without harm?
   He scans the skin with his instrument,
   hoping to trigger an alarm.
   Three days later, the victim drained
   of a once florid cheer, the bullet
   like a whole note sings a clear
   tone for one measure. Bell returns
   to his lab in Massachusetts, fiddles
   in vain, more misery intervenes:
   his baby boy is born and dies.
   Then Garfield does. The autopsy
   reveals the bullet had always lain
   too deep for a safe extraction--
   which hadn't, in fact, been necessary.
   A death caused mostly by infection:
   doctors' unwashed hands.

   In the history books, poor Garfield
   is footnoted for being killed.
   But Bell goes on to reinvent
   himself, a man who--as he'd said
   when the telephone was still afloat--
   is lost in fog, and yet can tell
   his latitude and longitude.
   He takes notes on condensing fresh
   water from real fog; conducts
   genetic trials on sheep (but fails
   to name any of them Dolly); constructs
   one flying machine--less like a plane
   than a giant paper honeycomb--
   after another. "I have not
   the shadow of a doubt" he writes
   in 1893, "the problem
   of aerial navigation will
   be solved within ten years." The Wrights
   will get there first. But in his way,
   as always, he's right on the money.

4. A tangled skein

   "From a drop of water" Watson reads
   aloud from a magazine, "a logician
   could infer the possibility
   of an Atlantic or a Niagara
   without having seen or heard of one
   or the other:' He slaps this down
   on the table. "What ineffable twaddle!"

   It's his first wrong move. The essay's
   author, we've foreseen, is Holmes,
   his brand-new roommate, about whom
   this "Study in Scarlet" proves the first
   in scores of chronicles that he--that
   is, Dr. Watson--writes.
   Dr. Conan Doyle's rough draft
   called it "A Tangled Skein." And we
   might too, this craft of authorship.

   So let them, on my tangling lines,
   call the overloaded switchboard
   for souls they're linked to, all at once:
   Keller and Sullivan, Conan Doyle
   and Watson, Bell and Watson, the two
   two-watt Watsons, Sullivan
   and Watson (either one will do:
   all three are listening to this list
   and taking notes), Holmes and Watson,
   Holmes and his flip side, Moriarty
   (not yet heads-first over the falls),
   and since the distinction's always fine
   between detection and invention,
   Holmes and Bell, then Holmes and Bell
   (a Dr. Joseph Bell) whom Conan
   Doyle had partly modelled Holmes on.

   What are they saying? Something about
   "the scarlet thread of murder" that runs
   "through the colourless skein of life."
   That's Holmes--who, in his arrogance
   (but no one else can do it right),
   kills himself a little with
   more cocaine in his scarlet vein.
   Something more about resentment
   of whatever we have cause to call
   ourselves. And yet we'd ask for foils,
   for second fiddles, for noble, dim
   Watsons as constant witnesses.
   Holmes to Watson: "It may be that
   you are not yourself luminous ...
   but you are a conductor of light."
   Bell to Watson: "Come here, I want
   to see you." Holmes to Watson again:
   "Come at once if convenient;
   if not convenient, come all the same."
   And this: "Come, Watson, the game's afoot!"

   And what's the game? Something about
   taking a message. A scarlet thread
   of reception branches in the brain,
   a filament, brilliantly unclear
   except for clearly being there--
   like the lightbulb waiting to switch on
   in the head of half-deaf Edison--
   and Conan Doyle is not entirely
   wrong, as he joins the conversation,
   to add: "I felt that my literary
   energies should not be directed
   too much into one channel...."

   Bell bellows into the phone: "Hurrah!"
   (Nobody can convince him
   to settle for a simple "Hello.")
   "Hoy! Hoy!" These days, an older man
   embodying an anagram
   (as a boy A. Graham Bell had gone
   by the alias of "H. A. Largelamb"--
   destined, it seems, to experiment on sheep), he
   doesn't use the phone very often any more.
   The ring annoys him at the dinner table;
   besides, his wife--the winningly
   named Mabel, the original
   Ma Bell--is deaf. She writes to us
   instead, an essay on the art
   of lipreading. A misnomer. The kiss
   of unheard words with thought must come,
   she says, by marking body clues
   (eyebrows, hands); on the lexicon
   of context; and, since very little
   is ever understood at once,
   on empty-headed readiness
   to miss a detail. You can feel
   your way back to the blanks.

   Which is the decoding task of Holmes.
   The scarlet "Rache" the victim scrawls
   on the wall is quickly misconstrued--
   if you only read one language--
   as "Rachel." But it means revenge.
   One letter. What he seeks may hinge
   on anything. The dancing men,
   a child's line of stick figures, turn
   murderous with a hypothesis--
   the commonest figure must be "E"--
   and Holmes unlocks the cryptogram
   so well he tricks the criminal
   to present himself for arrest in his
   own dancing language: "Come at once."
   The flesh made word, the word made flesh.

   Half-blind Annie Sullivan,
   nineteen, untaught, is summoned to
   Tuscumbia, Alabama to tame
   a child who doesn't know the name
   of anything. Then she has a thought.
   "I had no idea a short while ago"
   she writes a friend, "how to go to work;
   I was feeling about in the dark;
   but somehow I know now, and I know
   that I know." She's going to pretend,
   for now, that Helen understands.
   Keep talking. From a drop of water,
   a single word, a Niagara
   untangles in their hands.

Mary Jo Salter's fourth book of poems, A Kiss in Space, will be published by Knopf in February, 1999.

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