Monday, March 05, 2018

I Think of Myself as a Kind of Shaman, You Know: Reading the Syndicate of Water and Light

If there is an international man of mystery in contemporary poetry, Marc Vincenz is it: British but also Swiss and in some meaningful sense Hong Kong Chinese, multilingual, with an unplaceable accent, a past featuring stints as an Island Records musician, a high-level industrialist, a Chinese fantasy novelist, and Icelandic hermit, not to mention an interval as assistant to legendary poet-novelist Reynolds Price, he is the walking definition of an interesting man.  And, in a time when most of us on Planet Poetry can easily be filed away in a dusty folder labeled "professors of English," his is a refreshing profile.  He's prolific, too, and his latest book, a kind of ecological Divine Comedy called The Syndicate of Water and Light, is just now out from Station Hill.

I've written an afterword, and it begins like this:
“I think of myself as a kind of shaman, you know,” Marc Vincenz once said to me, “communicating with the other side.”  I didn’t quite know what he meant then, and probably mumbled something about Claude Levi-Strauss or Jerome Rothenberg, but reading The Syndicate of Water & Light, I think I finally understand.  And I think, too, that it’s appropriate that Vincenz made the revelation when we were in a dingy, black-walled Manhattan bar down below street level, where we went to wait out a heat wave that had engulfed the city. The place—dim and somehow squalid—had the feel of a kind of underworld, and it was of journeys to the underworld that Vincenz referred.  This book is exactly such a journey, a voyage to another reality beneath our quotidian world, and, in the end, a journey back: a communication with the other side.
            It is tempting, if one knows something about Vincenz’s peripatetic and multilingual life, to trace an autobiographical story in The Syndicate of Water & Light: those teeming cities and markets ringing with exotic languages, surrounded by burgeoning industry, seem like the China where he spent a good portion of his life.  And the pristine land of windblown grass, mountains, and sea could easily represent Iceland, where Vincenz retreated after a harrowing experience of venal modern Chinese klepto-capitalism. The sections dealing with Christianity, and a struggle to move beyond its formality to a more open view of the spirit, seem as though they may have come from his education in a Swiss monastery school, but I am cautioned against too autobiographical a reading here by Vincenz’s statement that he arrived in the monastery an agnostic child and emerged a confirmed teenage atheist. Vincenz’s life is present, here—how could it not be?—but it is refracted as if through a kaleidoscope, distorted and reformed into new patterns and symmetries.
            The primary pattern is that of the expedition: the poem’s presiding spirits, Ulysses and Dante, are both inveterate explorers.  Significantly, they are not merely explorers of physical space, but seekers after knowledge—Dante’s is a spiritual quest figured as geographic travel, and Vincenz’ Ulysses is Tennyson’s Ulysses, more than Homer’s: the old mariner follows knowledge like a sinking star, sailing on to the shores of Mount Purgatory. Vincenz is an optimist, when it comes to journeys. The Syndicate of Water and Light opens with a sense that we can grow in knowledge and that we can change—if not, perhaps, the world, then at least ourselves...

The rest is in the book itself, which can be ordered here.  The official launch will be at the AWP, where Marc himself will be adding some much-needed extra-academic zest to the proceedings.