[Mary]: by J. Hope Stein
Hyacinth Girl Press, 2012
In her chapbook [Mary]:, J. Hope Stein embraces the challenge of writing about Thomas Edison, a man who—much like poets—is so closely associated with invention. What makes Stein so successful here is that she doesn’t dwell on history we have already learned. Instead, she focuses on Edison’s lover and eventual wife while using the inventor as more of a supporting player in the series of poems. Using a variety of techniques, Stein creates the images beneath the truth we thought we knew.
For example, the poem February 5, 1878 makes the reader feel comfortable with known facts about Edison, such as references to his milk diet and hearing loss. Yet Stein has arranged the poem as a dialogue that shows Mary’s sense of intimacy toward the Inventor, while the Inventor appears to remain oblivious to her. What the Inventor is thinking about creating is irrelevant; it’s what he misses that matters here.
By the very next poem, though, the Inventor is paying attention to Mary, taking advantage of his employer-employee relationship with her. Throughout the book and sometimes to great comedic effect, Stein uses prudish-sounding vernacular that incorporates euphemisms for body parts. Here, the Inventor refers to the covert ways he encourages Mary to interact with his monster; I have the mind to make a cocktail of her, he thinks.
The poems progressively grow in emotional impact, thanks to the poet’s ability to make connections. When Stein refers to the glow of candlelight through sheets in Invention of Light Bulbs (Just Married), she is linking the couple’s newfound sexual connectedness with a previously undiscovered way to produce light. In July 9, 1890, Mary observes, The first time I saw a light bulb I … looked at the sun as though it were less like a sun & more like an artist’s idea of sun. Real-life Edison had apparently been disappointed that his wife wasn’t capable of inventing anything, but Stein reshapes this notion, turning Mary into the emotionally and sensually aware person Edison struggled to become.
Invention of Motion Pictures, the final poem in [Mary]:, serves as a sort of farewell to Edison by combining wide-ranging elements Stein had introduced previously: tapped-out Morse code, motion-picture directions, and playful, herky-jerky intimate language: Husband, I married you because you’re a goof & a decent man. Based on what we might have known about Edison before reading the chapbook, this line would seem to be an ironic statement, as Edison would seem neither goofy nor decent. Yet in [Mary]:, the statement serves as the last thread of a vibrant, behind-the-scenes theme, the unique perspective of a young wife holding power through sexual exhibition and self-awareness that rival scientific ambition. In the environment Stein has created, holding hands [to] defy the certain-est death can rise above the pursuit of patents.
Review by Daniel M. Shapiro
Daniel M. Shapiro is a special education teacher who lives in Pittsburgh. His new book of poems, How the Potato Chip Was Invented, is available from sunnyoutside press.