How Not to See

Seen enough?

What would be the clincher?  Perhaps the final stain on some garment?  A bridge too far?  Third theater of war?  Michael Jackson not quite dead?

What are we looking for that we haven’t already seen?

If we can characterize the last three centuries roughly as the age of industry, spectacle, and attention (nineteenth, twentieth, twenty-first, respectively) we would do well to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves in considering how to maneuver in the new attention economy, which has higher stakes than the old spectacle, which was merely saucy and bewitching compared to what’s coming on line.

The system used to want you as a worker.  Then it added the burden of shopping.  Pay your dues, pay your Visa.  Now you have to pay attention.  And your downtime is uptime, gaze tracked, recorded, calibrated to the nth degree, as Jon Beller, the Marx of the attention economy, might put it.

I never saw the planes crashing into the towers.  Never saw the event, the footage, anything, ever.  As I write that last sentence, our southbound Amtrak rounds the bend—maybe south of the bridge below Sleepy Hollow (perhaps some readers can tell me where I am exactly)—and the sky “line” of Manhattan with its twin absences comes into view downriver, seaward.

On that day in September long ago I thought I might have heard my neighbor’s TV say a building had fallen (is fallen, fallen, Babylon the great is fallen—a bit of the autist, artist, and prophet jangling in that head of mine) and I snatched up baby Liam and retreated to the neighbor’s attic, which is sunny and full of toys, and we played as we always did, though I was alert and poised for flight.  I then went seven fat years without seeing a picture of the event, till a single photograph tracked me down one day and got me when I wasn’t looking, so to speak.  Seven lean years to follow.

Death is a special part of our lives, I hear from my teachers, and I’d hardly want to intrude on someone else’s without an invitation.  Forty thousand children died that day, falling one way or another into the ground, and I have not seen that unfortunate series of events either.  I’ve been around, you know.  Around the block, around the world.  And oh the things I haven’t seen.

We drove the first part of the journey to the school of the poets last weekend, and coming under an overpass there must have been a feast of death in the oncoming lanes, judging from the rubberneckers.  Traffic on our side slowing almost to a stop for no other reason than to catch the porno, the money shot, the full-monty diorama of death and desire.  Our tongues clucking somewhere on the alveopalatal ridge between empathy and sympathy, our eyes horny for the foxy scene.  Didn’t see that either.

Is it ever okay to see and not act?  Asking the question seriously feels like a mighty inrushing wind as the troops and reporters take flight and implode towards us, abandoning distant spectacles and wars, relinquishing the conceit of current events, the staunchly American monolingual fantasy of “keeping up.”  Ripped pages of The Economist flutter to the ground.

As the horizon recedes, the foreground becomes correspondingly focused.  In close here, you see for yourself, and there’s a chance you might act.  We advise precisely this.

As our gaze consolidates homeward, we surrender distant Iranian women to their sexist husbands and find that our own sins are more than enough to occupy us: our own cars, planes, collisions and collusions and complicities and Ram-Dodgy compromises.  We stop whingeing about and to our “leaders” and our “government” as if we were so many children who cannot see through the silliness of patronizing—hailing as father and as boss—the “representative” daddies and mommies in this or that “congress” or “branch” somewhere else.  As if it were anything more than rank nonsense to hear this or that academic or authority bobbing her head and advising us upon this or that foreign affair and upon the grave importance of that tired irrelevance, electoral politics.  As if somehow we could be free but still bound to leaders.  Having said it before, we say it again: we emancipate all such “leaders,” and free them to go home and pay attention to their own families and watersheds.  We have stopped looking at world affairs since we have noticed the length of our own noses.

Not looking, we find, is excellent, and goes well with similar instincts, like doing, which is to say thwarting, laughing, monkeywrenching, tickling.

Still, it is hard not to see the prisons in New York state, which are everywhere and everywhere and everywhere, an immense glut of horror, and which are, especially along the Hudson, so weirdly consonant with the aesthetics of nature.  So lovely, really.  Could that be, viewed here in our downrivering train somewhere south of Philipstown, the famous Sing Sing?  And look at that facility here near Hammersberg, I think, with its flag this Friday afternoon at half mast, perhaps for one of the forty-thousand children dying of hunger today.  Look at how structurally similar it is to the tennis club a few minutes farther down here on the east bank of the river.  I suppose that both the club and the pen are medium security facilities with impeccable views.  Of America I sing, we sing sing.

Could it be that I—we—have forgotten how glorious the Hudson is, with its stone walls like ramparts, and its prisons like ramparts, its power stations like mosques with minaret smokestacks, and its steep hills not so shabby after all, though since we last were here we have been out and about in the mountains of the world?  If I have not paddled most of it by this time next year—sons Liam and Sebastian, will you come with me?—dismiss me as a dreamer.

And now here we are, yet again, right here on the dot.  Not somewhere else as the electoralists and democratists advise.  Not hankering after Washington, nor after some slick new boss of the empire.

Here at this moment it’s Manhattan, an island in America and in the Hudson, and I’m sideglancing at four on this Friday afternoon along West 35th from the corner of Eighth Ave, the rim of this canyon sunlicked.  The stud guys from Local 79 coming boisterously off work.  The brunette for whom I wait only six minutes to round out the picture and who, to my otherwise happily married eyes, tightfleshes the crosshatching of her shorts as she frets at the light.  I expand to love it all.

Big love, for the dickheads and grifters and a not-so-ancient lady with a hump like backtits. The old carlots all car stackers now, like Hollywood Squares.  My eyeballs here on this island drinking and sucking and bugging out on the ends of their stalks like worms in a big apple.

And later, that second Peroni Birra Superiore in the High Line Cafe that, not minding if I do, I did.

High Line Park itself a good idea but candy-assed by the pols.  It’s an elevated railbed gussied up to theme park status, with no public transportation around it.  Still, it’s a footpath, and a great place from which to salute its fellow traveler the Hudson.

Swinging on shank’s mare to the north away from the stilted park, I remain on the lookout for the M20 bus north on 8th Ave—is that right?—or any bus for that matter.  Five hundred taxis in clusters of twenty pass me.  The city is overrun with these yellow exoskeletals, for all I know stuffed with rich people trying to suck up to the cabbies for a quick fix of street cred.  Get home fast and watch the “news.”

I’d left poetry school away up the Hudson earlier in the day, a few of the southbound poets gradually trickling away on the train.  Some of our group will teach at the university in Palestine, some at Bard, the American college on the Hudson.  In Palestine, an excuse from students for not finishing homework—the Israeli military broke into our home last night and held us up at gunpoint—is apparently common.  At Bard—not so much.  Wonderful, if you think about it, that Al-Quds University and Bard are co-conspirators in the front line of poetics.

The poets are an unruly lot, exploding the poems of others by inserting their own lines, rending essays with the fierceness of their glances, composing unrhyming anthems of glossolalia at the drop of a hat.

The Language and Thinking program is to poetry what parkour is to city buildings: always keep moving forward.  Form rides content hard, without respite.  Five minutes of free writing, three minutes of Quaker-style reading, four minutes of focused free writing, six minutes reading a poem aloud for its sound rather than its sense, and so on.

The exploding poems exercise turns out to be “writing into a poem,” meaning that everyone slides their lines in to an established poem while one reader intones the main poem.  Small group work shakes down egos, throws everyone into the foreground of the event.  I am suddenly Creon in Antigone, thinking, this will be corny, and yet I startle myself by awakening to the evil within, and am applauded for a Christopher Walken-style performance.  The poet Joan Retallack is Antigone, and in our skit she descends to the underworld by hitting the button on the elevator.  Someone in the Palestinian contingent, a young mother who has written a book on Syria, recommends tableau vivant depictions of violence, in the form called a frieze, and I consider with alarm the vision of seventeen-year-old incoming Bard students arranging themselves into tight clusters of perversion.  A long way from rhyme here.

In a small group we consider a portion of Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others,” where the story of Leontios—this is my version of our class version of Sontag’s version of Plato’s version of Socrates’ version of Leontios, so something might have been lost in transit—seeing the grisly bodies of criminals rotting, at first holds himself back and then, when he cannot control himself, runs up to the corpses and says to his eyes, “you unhappy creatures, feast.  Take your fill of this lovely sight!”  Our small group then proposed as a sample assignment (nine minutes focused free writing) that students be asked to compose monologues to their eyes as if they were, in quick succession (and following the essays we had been reading), Montaigne, Sontag, Said, and, fourth but not least, themselves.  “The eyeball vocative,” we called the assignment.  “Things to tell your eyeballs.”

Which is where I’ll take my leave of you, dear reader.  What would you tell your eyeballs that they hadn’t heard before?  Could you make a case for disciplined inattention?

I’m hoping you read this essay instead of some bullhicky about this or that leader, and that you read on this site instead of in the usual pulps.  But I’m also sort of hoping you didn’t read anything, because you were out on the river.  That means we’d have the same glint in our eye.

David Ker Thomson is loosely affiliated with the Bard Language and Thinking Program in Annandale-on-Hudson.  He lives most of the year in Toronto.  His latest article on Toronto family life is in next week’s NOW Magazine.