Reading Marc Vincenz
First Mistake: A Cabin in the Woods
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Around the time I sat down to read Becoming the Sound of Bees, Marc Vincenz’s strange, intense book of poems from Ampersand Books, I ran across a news article about the discovery of a tiny, well-camouflaged hut concealed in a vast tract of forest in northern California. It was deep in the wilds of a large state park, and so well concealed that a skilled forest ranger almost had to collide with the thing to discover it. Inside were the necessities for a Spartan life: jars of seeds and dried beans, a rough bed and table, a small wood stove. On a shelf were a few books: an old dictionary, a guide to plants and herbs — and a well-thumbed copy of Public Secrets, a collection of the radical thinker and counter-culture veteran Ken Knabb’s essays and memoirs.
The forest ranger, interviewed about this find, seemed reluctant to have had to post an eviction notice: the area surrounding the shelter was pristine, without so much as a footpath or broken branch to indicate human habitation. The hermit living there clearly cared for the planet, and wanted nothing more than to live in peace and think through the fate of the civilization from which he’d fled. When the ranger returned days later, the cabin and its contents were gone without a trace, except for a cryptic symbol on the ground, spelled out in the ashes from the now-missing hut’s wood stove.
Coming across news of the radical hermit’s cabin felt like a particularly fortuitous coincidence. The hermit, after all, seemed like a fit analogue for the protagonist of Vincenz’s poems. Vincenz is the sort of poet who likes to work at scale while remaining within the lyric format: in Becoming the Sound of Bees he writes individual poems, but keeps them spinning around a few common settings and themes, and returns again and again to a recurring character, Ivan. The series has been compared to Ted Hughes’ Crow, and I can see why: we’re at least as much in a mythic or visionary world as we are in a quotidian one, and we’re living in the after-effects of terrible devastation. Unlike Hughes, though, Vincenz isn’t dealing with the devastation of personal life. His apocalypse isn’t psychological so much as it is environmental, and possibly social or political: we catch enigmatic glimpses, throughout the poems of Becoming the Sound of Bees, of despoiled seas, birdless skies, and landscapes composed of nothing but desert and despoilation.
Surely Vincenz’s Ivan, a wounded, contemplative, and largely solitary survivor of a civilization that has drowned itself in its own excrement, is a close analogue to the Californian hermit with his cryptic symbols made of ash. Ivan, after all, traces shapes in the sand, yearns to understand the nature of the general disaster, and wonders if things might have gone better ‘If only we’d always lived cut- / off on an island…’ But thinking of Vincenz’s book as a series of hermit’s meditations was my first mistake.
The first and most insistently reiterated pronoun in Becoming the Sound of Bees is ‘we,’ and a sense of collective experience and collective fate permeate the book. This isn’t a hermit’s book, it’s a book concerned with, and attempting to dramatize, an environmental crisis that is global, and can only be properly understood as a shared predicament. The predicament spreads itself so widely that it becomes not only a problem of our particular civilization, but of patterns of thought and behavior found across cultures and throughout history. In the poem ‘Crank-Handled,’ for example, we find Ivan and an unnamed narrator working to revive a rusted-out relic of a hand-cranked motor. Bending over ‘cogs, spokes, / sprockets & springs, exposing that frail skeleton,’ they grumble that ‘nothing ever came from hydrocarbons,’ and speculate as to whether ‘machination in its primal sense was what led us / into the same spiked jaw traps as the Cucuteni — / who incinerated their own homes before wandering on.’ The problem isn’t local to our two mechanics and the rust-bucket, smoke-spewing engine they hope to revive, nor is it specific to modern Western civilization: the Cucuteni were a neolithic people in what is now Romania, their mindset every bit as indifferent to environmental preservation as our own. Their less baleful impact, Vincenz implies, was not the product of some innate virtue, but purely the result of less developed means of destruction.
Second Mistake: Paradise Lost
Marc Vincenz has something of an anthropological imagination, and when he envisions environmental apocalypse, he reaches for scenes of tribal life to imagine its outcome. In ‘Pull of Gravitons,’ for example, we see:
reclaiming more of the land. I postulate that soon we
shall have to live on stilts like the Bajau Laut tribes of Semporna
who built their homes on coral reefs in the ocean.
The vision is not paradisal, though, with some return to a Rousseau-and-Gaugin inspired pre-modern Eden of noble savagery: it is fundamentally grim and pessimistic. As ‘Pull of Gravitons’ continues, we see Ivan cut his finger on a dull knife as he attempts to pry open an oyster, and the narrator reminds him that bivalves like oysters absorb and retain the effluvia of their environment, which in this case include all manner of toxins and heavy metal residues. As Ivan’s blood seeps into the wooden floor, the two men look out over the unforgivable landscape where ‘torn billboards still intrude their ambition / with their vivid eyes & the buildings beyond in the deserted // desert city fold and creak in the wind.’ We’ve degenerated too far and despoiled too much to return to paradise. We’ve fallen, as a civilization, and as far as Vincenz is concerned there’s no way back up — or so I thought. But coming to that premature conclusion was my second mistake in reading Becoming the Sound of Bees.
Consider the way Vincenz describes Ivan’s blood falling to the floor in ‘Pull of Gravitons.’ It drips to the rough timber floor of his shelter, then ‘sits there for a moment in its deep red // as if considering where else it might go, until it seeps in / to the old wood, tissue returning to tissue.’ It’s the final four words that matter, here, and that begin to offer us the thinnest strand of hope. As defiled as the world may be, it is nevertheless capable of transformation, even if only at the level of chemistry. What was human — Ivan’s blood — breaks down into its constituent components and changes into something new.
This kind of image of transformation is very much in the background in ‘Pull of Gravitons,’ but in other poems pushes itself more aggressively into view. In ‘Storm Cloud,’ for example, we see what appears to be a hostile and utterly infertile landscape: ‘… these barren / plains, these graveyards of ancient trees and humbled rocks / of dust and regret, the solitude of bone becoming stone.’ Even in this desolation, though, we become aware of the possibility of transformation, albeit the transformation of once living matter, the bones of animals, into stone through the millennia-long process of petrifaction. Soon, though, we begin to see the whole of the desert landscape undergoing transformation, as ‘arachnids, / spinners of nets and strands and traps, minute jittery midges, / poisonous fungi and lichen spores’ do their work. Down at the microscopic level we find tiny creatures laboring to transform the landscape, collectively becoming ‘the pumping bio-valve of the heartstorm, the throbbing heat / of the wartorn, the delving, ever-evolving symbiosis.’ The stricken land lives, breathes, and transforms, albeit on scales and timeframes difficult for us to apprehend.
Other poems show us transformation, or the yearning for transformation, on a more human scale. ‘Static,’ which functions as something of an overture to the book as a whole, and introduces us to the buzzing of bees, one of the book’s recurring images, shows us both an ambiguously post-apocalyptic world, and the possibility of a change of consciousness:
that was not a year
when the days
were not like days
& the sky was bird-
for the sound of bees
& hearing nothing
but the wind box the panes
we began to hum & buzz & drone
becoming the grey matter
In a time when bee colony collapse hints at ecological devastation, these absent bees are a resonant image of large-scale disaster. But they aren’t only that. They are, for example, eminently literary, with a pedigree going back to Virgil’s Eclogues, where the buzzing of bees works as the symbol of pastoral peace and stability. We’ve lost that pastoral world, Vincenz implies — but his pessimism is tempered by the possibility that we can regain it. The path isn’t easy, though, since it involves transforming not just our external world, but of ourselves. It is we, after all, who must become the sound of bees. What this means is something like a total transformation of existing consciousness, of the kind or waste-generating instrumental reason that Vincenz sees as endemic to humanity at least as far back as those neolithic firebugs, the Cucuteni. Vincenz does not pretend to know the content of a reformed human consciousness. Instead, he offers us something like an image for the preconditions of the renovated mind: ‘the hum & buzz & drone’ that comes before words. We need, first, to undo the old ways of thinking, and from this something new will be born. The ‘static’ of the poem’s title isn’t a matter of stasis — it’s the emptying out of our old signals, creating an empty channel prepared to pick up new sounds and meanings as they emerge.
This notion of transformation and rebirth is underlined by ‘Imago,’ the poem immediately following ‘Static.’ Here we find a character (probably Ivan) burned and scorched from some disaster, which has left him with ‘nothing but singed nerve-endings that hum when it rains or when / a lightening storm approaches & in that moment he tosses in his bed wraps / his damp sheets around like bandages.’ The image is one of a cocoon, and by the end of the poem we find the man ‘awaken in his new hard shell praying the gods will grant him wings.’ From his wounds, he hopes, will come some angelic transformation — a hope that pervades Becoming the Sound of Bees.
Third Mistake: The Book as Unit of Composition
As one spends time with Vincenz’s book, the connections uniting the lyrics reveal themselves to be tighter and tighter: images of death and transfiguration tie the poems together until it becomes clear that Vincenz works with the book, not the individual poem, as the unity of composition. Or so I thought — but that was my third mistake in reading Becoming the Sound of Bees.
To see Vincenz as composing in book-length units is actually to sell his ambition short. This becomes clear when we consider Becoming the Sound of Bees in the context of Vincenz’s earlier writing, especially the book immediately preceding the present collection, This Wasted Land and its Chymical Illuminations. In that book, a single annotated poem of some 900 lines, Vincenz meticulously revisits T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, adapting its forms and insights to his own circumstances.
In Becoming the Sound of Bees, the debt to Eliot also runs deep: it is, after all, a book about a stricken land, and the elusive quest for rebirth. But the present volume has shed any talk of grails, fisher kings, and occulted Christianity: it is more fully the creation of Vincenz’s own moment and experience, an ecopoetic meditation rather than a neo-Christian one. Vincenz’s project goes beyond the individual book to a conversation among books, and enacts, in its own way, the emergence of a new poetic. From within the cocoon of modernism he calls out for the gods to grant him new wings.