Mark Dow


Ordinary Channels

Sound started in the seventies.

A twelve-year-old Meyerland boy sent a letter to the Thomas Alva Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey, asking that the original cylinder phonograph be sent to him. He knew no one else would want it.

Meyerland is a subdivision of Houston.

In eighteen seventy-eight, Edison wrote: "The general principles of construction are, a flat plate or disk, with spiral groove on the face, operated by clock-work underneath the plate; the grooves are cut very closely together, so as to give a great total length to each inch of surface. . . . A sheet of foil is placed in the phonograph, the clock-work set in motion, and the matter dictated into the mouth-piece."

The boy was sent a polite response and an olive-green fold-out brochure. Later he hid way down inside himself at the top of the stairs to listen to people outside him and write down what they said. One transcription was found on the back of a manila envelope with a postal meter cancellation date of June 8, 1975, and the return address of Beth Yeshurun Schools, 4525 Beechnut, Houston, Texas:

--What's _______ annoyed about?
--All the fighting.
--Just fighting. Quarreling between brothers. It's a new invention.

Some of the transcripts include concise annotations:

--You don't know how much I've fucking tried. CRYING.
--I know you have.
--I don't want to hear it. You don't know. I've tried. CRYING.

Many of the originals include arrows and arcing lines to connect fragments in ways now indecipherable. The identity of speakers is often indicated by initials, and, in some cases, not indicated at all. Some entries show date, time, place, with the tidiness of something cleanly captured. Sometimes there is an odd turn-of-phrase:

6/26/79 5:00 PM. By the pool.
--I'm sorry, Mom.
--Me, too.
[Exit mom.]
--She's not in a very good attitude.
--What did you do?
--None of your business.

After the matter is dictated, the sheet of foil is removed from the phonograph. It is then "placed in a suitable form of envelope and sent through the ordinary channels to the correspondent for whom designed. He, placing it upon his phonograph, starts his clock-work and listens to what his correspondent has to say. Inasmuch as it gives the tone of voice of his correspondent, it is identified. As it may be filed away as other letters, and at any subsequent time reproduced, it is a perfect record."

In the pool again, maybe shortly after:
--You wanna play that game?
--No, I'm getting out.
[No answer].

Some notes become increasingly spotty, as if the transcriber was losing patience, interest, or will. Some provide little or no actual content. One reads in full:

_______ goes up into _______'s room and they have a serious talk in low tones.

Some of the transcriptions lack punctuation, presumably for speed of reproduction.

--What's going on around here
--I don't know I haven't really been listening
--What's _______ upset about
--All the fighting that goes on around here
--Well I don't think there's any more fighting around here than among most siblings Maybe less You just to have to learn to dial it out
--I doubt there's less fighting here and it' very difficult to dial it out I can do so to an extent because I just don't try to be a mediator I try to keep away from it but it's still extremely annoying to a very high degree
--[gets off bed] What are you reading?
--Well good night
--Good night. Sleep well
--[softly] Same to you.

Illegibility and ellipses suggest that some of the transcriptions were created in so-called real time. Some fill sheets of college-ruled loose-leaf so densely we assume they are re-creations from just after the fact.

Now I know you don't believe me when I tell you I love you. You didn't believe me yesterday or last week but I do love you. You think I play favorites, but I bet you could ask _______ or _______ if I favor them and they'll say no. Maybe I'm wrong.

The olive-green fold-out brochure from West Orange says: "Out of West Orange came the motion picture camera, vastly improved phonographs, and both silent and sound movies. Other Edison patents covered electric motors and generators, incandescent and fluorescent lamps, continuous nickel and copper plating, a method of depositing metals in a vacuum, magnetic separation and briquetting of iron ore, processes for making carbolic acid from coal tar, and a nickel-iron alkaline electric storage battery which alone required 50,000 experiments" (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968─346-117/175). Edison wrote that his phonograph had realized "the captivity of all manner of sound-waves heretofore designated as fugitive."

Some transcriptions were started and abandoned but kept with the others:

_______ bangs on door.
_______ opens it.



Mark Dow is from Houston, Texas. His poems have been finalists for the New Issues and Colorado Prizes. His poetry and nonfiction have appeared in Agni, Country Music Poetry, The New York Times, The Paris Review, PN Review, SLAM! Wrestling, and Word for / Word.


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MadHat, Issue 15, Winter 2013-2014