Sibylline by Marc Vincenz
Ampersand Books, 2016, paperback, $12.95, 47 pgs.
The Sibylline Books of the ancient world were many things: legend, prophecy, political tool, guide to worship, syncretic node, divine relic, dangerous art. Long protected for their power, they were ultimately destroyed for the same reason. Marc Vincenz’s Sibylline is also many things: a varied, insistent meditation on the creation, function and perception of art; a sweeping, conflicted vision of art’s place(s) in history; a collection of hymns to possibility and limitation; a single extended poem that enacts the idea of history in both its continuity and its fragmentation.
Vincenz has published eleven books of his own poetry. He is also an accomplished translator, however, and his style in this collection often has the feel of text translated from another place and time. In part, this is a function of Vincenz’s fearless appreciation of beauty in the face of modernity’s confounding cynicism:
How to handle the modern?
How to find a kiss
for the whole world?
Behind a beautiful curtain
the objects of mystery & desire.
The dislocation. (32)
The air of translation also seems to reflect his intimate familiarity with the art of earlier ages. He does not simply tell us that ancient art touches our own; he writes lines that sound like vestiges of ancient poetics, either Biblical or Classical:
Fragrant hymns of praise
& divine celebration—
the smoke of creation. (24)
This stanza, at the beginning of “The heartbeat of a building,” is framed by a single italicized word, “Transverberation,” and the single line, “Journeys that do not end.” Indeed, Vincenz’s verses are proof of humanity’s ongoing literary journey, one that carries the vibrations of language across time. These vibrations may be shaking up a new era through Vincenz’s voice, but he is conscious of how much the struggles of the artist—and the human being—remain unchanged. Now as then, “one myth assails another” (25); still we ask, “What is the vocabulary of power?” (24) In a destructive world, we waste creative energy
with the industry of men,
rhetoric, theater & illusion—
to dramatize yourself
as an ideal man,
rich in trade & craft
& so to come to some fortuitous conclusion
behind the mask
in this Pantheon of small gods. (16)
The forces that derail our sense of purpose are within as well as without. In “Worshipping the serene Buddha,” Vincenz speaks to how little serenity we impatient, distracted worshipers draw from our practice when we bring none to it. By whatever means we seek enlightenment, we’re always waiting for a new story with the same old lack of good grace:
When does the disquiet
& the yawning background
in celestial revelations? (31)
The air of translation in Vincenz’s poems is also a reflection of his style—plain and spare, yet often elusive (and allusive, I should add, since Vincenz revels in linguistic play). The words are laid before us in a language we can understand, yet understanding remains at a distance. Vincenz resists predictable syntax, and he puts us in medias res again and again by beginning poems (the titles, although set apart, are lines themselves) and interior lines with ampersands. He makes it clear that none of these poems can be finished and set aside; all are necessary, all part of an ever expanding greater whole. The idea that art is a continuum in which there are no real endings recurs throughout the book, and it can be both exciting and demoralizing.
Art feeds on art (5); the “Goliath of marble” becomes “the small block of David / from the very skin of stone” (12). Although this process has a quality of mystical renewal about it, it also suggests inevitable reduction. Still, Vincenz sees great potential in small things. He tells us that “the bees carry / the keys to the kingdom” and asks, “Is it not a time / to draw perspective?” (23) One of the loveliest poems in the collection, “Counterrevolution” (22) brings us into “the harmony / of the spaces / loved in, lived in”—kitchens, gardens, the places where water is drawn and fruit gathered. This scene of simple yet fecund domesticity is “where the mind will be / taken care of.” Further, it represents artistic space with room to grow—art that can be expanded by our small contributions rather than diminished by them:
This painting is large
& could hold
The final poem in the book comes at the end of a much more troubled string of verses, which address the corporate influence on modern life and the rise of “content” over deeper meaning.
A voiceover says:
All roads are traveled.
Vibration determines everything. (42)
This is the contemporary, cinematic equivalent of prophetic utterance. But the speaker’s response is not enthusiastic:
O, if only
for a quick, tight
Hollywood ending. (42)
There is a longing here for an ordinary way out, an escape from a life infinitely reshaped by every little quiver, every traveler’s foot laid down, with all the “babblers, dilettantes & swindlers / opening doors / into different futures, /following the minotaur” (33). But Vincenz is more tongue-in-cheek here than not, as he ends both poem and book. The celebration of infinite possibility lies not in the last glib words, but in the final illustration that follows them. Dennis Paul Williams’s paintings appear throughout the collection, and each is a soft interplay of light and dark with hints of warm color, sprays of leaves, faint outlines of female faces and bodies often overlapping with other bodies. Ultimately, image has the last word, and it is an image that suggests hope: a glowing hearth radiating through a house’s very walls as if they were stained glass; a sky more light than dark; the hint of an embrace and the hint of a bird with its wings spread; those same delicate leaves swirling on. This is an indistinct hope, with lines falling on top of lines and thin fissures intersecting like crackle glaze, but it brings to mind an earlier optative cry:
Oh to follow the flight of the swallow
through the storm of the future
& to become
in your own right. (32)
The heart of being is culmination in transformation—transformation that make us both something else and our truest selves.