The Muckraker’s Holiday

I’m floating in Tivoli Bays as deep in and as naked as your imagination can handle.  The kills and scatter-cats of the stump-tooth’d stone dentures called in these parts—not without justification—mountains loom and zoom.  K and I rake mud and letters from the Hudson River floor, trying not to think PCB and GE and such, otherwise it’d be a busman’s holiday for a muckraker.

Viewed from water level the mountains get in close and you’re actually swimming in the mountains, in the bays, in the Hudson.  I stop writing it in my head and toes and go instead with whatever flow would include the people who were swimming here a thousand years or a thousand years ago.

I’ve been with the poets for a fortnight or two, pulling off night raids on the scientists and making off with thoughts, words, and women.  A roboticist said “uncanny valley” the other day, a technical term in robotics, and boy didn’t the poets grab that one and bandy it about, buffeting each other about the head and ears with it like a lacrosse ball hard-sticked between villages.  Uncanny valley.

Turns out that the valley’s a dip in the graph of affection humans typically tender to robots.  Have you heard of this?  As it happens, if you’re old R2 or C3 or someone like that (non-humanoid or only comically humanoid) on the one hand, you’ll be loved, or if you’re a blow-up rubber fuckdoll like that Obama with the full look and feel of real on the other, you’ll never want for love.  But right up next to real is the valley of the shadow of death, what Christopher Mims calls “close but no cigar.”  That’s uncanny valley.  In robotics it’s freaky countenances and gestures as close as a violated incest taboo.  The scariest are the ones with mobile, sexy faces, and you don’t know they’re not human till you’re already taken in.  Uncanny valley’s between the plump and pump of silicon’d twin peaks.

Just like civil wars are the least civil of all wars because the teams look so similar and resentments have festered so nicely, uncanny valley’s as close to the heart of personkind as a restive armpit.  The essay writer close to but not cigarin’ with the poets is uncanny valley himself, like one of Jesus’ women that he could imagine looking upon and lusting after without being one.

Far outside the Hudson valley my old stomping grounds in London are raging while here in headless-Hessian-horseman country we’re milk’n MLK, particularly that letter from a Birmingham jail, for whatever we can in whatever passes for a classroom, which could be a box-shaped room or could be a two-hundred-year-old-oak leafskirt shadow a hundred feet across.  Martin Luther King this year resonates for first-year Bard students like a soundproof room, alas, and the King who was moving towards X in his last year and away from anything an American nationalist would want to build a monument to or a holiday for is an even harder sell.  But the kids are good-natured and we settle for writing 5-7-5 haikus while sitting on Hannah Arendt’s grave, a modest footstone conveniently moldering in a copse in the center of campus.

I catch obliquely on someone’s pocket rectangle some frames of the blow-up fuckdoll passing for a clothed emperor and I get that second-thought uncanny feeling about him or it, like someone’s walking on my grave.

At night gray tree frogs bark loudly up the right tree and the poets cinch content into form as tight as leather harnesses and blow each other in age-appropriate ways away, a storm out of Manhattan bearing down upon the Hudson notch and each other like Genghis yes-we-khan distributing DNA or Johnny Appleseed crossing the Alleghany.  I play back-up Morse Code for the poet Sam Truitt as he reads aloud from his book manuscript Dick on the murder of Jack Kennedy.  He’s also got a volume called Street Mete going.  Street mete’s what I’ve been doing avant la lettre these last three years in the general get-it-on-athon of Toronto streets, getting it on and writing it upfor an American audience.  Staying away from that irrelevant distant-watershed stuff middle-brow ’bloids like the Times call politics.

I am afraid.  I notice it.  Sam notices it.  It’s something that just cuts in sometimes and doesn’t offer good paragraph transitions.  It’s not the only thing but it’s there.

My way here by canoe having been held temporarily at bay by a certainstorm und drang of domestic turbulence, I came tail-tucked and humble by aeroplane through what must be the Lester Be Piercin’ aeroport, if my ears don’t deceive.  There’s a part of United States on the inside of Toronto, or so the signs at the Lester say, and I made an initial sally one mid-summer’s Friday morning, but was rebuffed after some hours in one of those rooms you don’t ever want to be in.  The guard of America said I couldn’t come into this or that America, but when I asked him to tell me exactly why, the guard-suddenly-guards of America looked deep into my eyes and—metonymically—into my soul, and said, “you know.”  Which might be true in its own way.  You know.  Twenty-three hours later I arrived in this riverine America after all, none the wiser about the technicalities of the delay, but feeling the cosmic expansion of state power like a psychic constriction.  You know.

Now with a stout crook’d staff in hand and longboard beneath my feet, I pole the roads of the nearly Bar’d campus as though I am a gondolier, and I frame Catskill vistas with blinks of grateful eyes, till the enigmatic K comes and we cast ourselves upon the waters in hopes we’ll come back.

David Ker Thomson normally writes from the Greatest Lake Bioregion. dave.thomson@utoronto.ca   Get your freak on about the uncanny valleyhere.  This is the second article in the “American Sorrow” diptych.  The first can be found here.


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