Marc Vincenz | SIBYLLINE

Our Featured Selection this month is Marc Vincenz’s exploratory poem SIBYLLINE in its entirety, which follows an introductory conversation between the poet and our Associate Editor for Special Features, Nancy Mitchell.

Ampersand Books will publish SIBYLLINE in book form with accompanying illustrations by Louisiana artist Dennis Paul Williams in 2016.

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NM: Marc, I’m amazed by the prodigious imagination, intelligence and skill that permeates so much of SIBYLLINE. The narrative arc of this poem spans the emergence of the Italian Renaissance out of the darkness of the medieval era: the Black Death to the Baroque period, which marked its end—O, the arcs & the swirls.  You’ve impressively managed a dual perspective, which is both cosmic/spiritual and political/global.  What brought you to this particular era as point of departure?

MV: The Italian Renaissance represents a major shift in human consciousness, a seething burst of creative impulses from the margins to the mainstream. Humanism is re-born and art, philosophy, architecture, literature, music and science coalesce.  The introduction of movable type in Europe leads to the dissemination of rediscovered texts (many from Greek antiquity) and an outpouring of innovation. The establishment of the Florentine banking system and its ensuing wealth allow much of this to occur. Uccello, Masaccio, Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini, Donatello, Botticelli, and, of course, the three great masters, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Rafael, produce some of the most enduring works of art the world has ever seen.

NM: Yes!

& from that Goliath of marble

            the small block of David
            from the very skin of the stone.
                                                            (iv. & in the Pantheon where Rafael was buried)

MV: Inspired by the Greek and Roman master sculptors, Art’s re-ignited flame captures deep reflections of the divine. Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus are two great examples of this.  As if emerging from some kind of spiritual hibernation, artists-as-alchemists begin to articulate a transcendental beauty and, in the process, discover the fulcrum of the metaphysical and material.

And yet, despite all this vision and inspiration, despite the emergence of political and social criticism in Art, despite the giant strides in architecture (Brunelleschi) and science (Leonardo, Galileo, Copernicus), innovators are frequently being challenged or suppressed by the Vatican and the orthodox mainstream. Art becomes more complex and layered—not only in technique and craft, but also in message and metaphor.  Here begins the golden age, the wedding of light and matter. Linear perspective, politics, metaphor and mythology meet for the first time on canvas, in stone, in the music of the spheres. This genesis of creativity as a spiritual or political device reflects fundamental changes in civilization and paves the way (despite the gaping potholes—the Inquisition among them) to the Age of Enlightenment.

NM: And with these changes, the challenge arises for the artist to remain true to himself as the genesis of creativity becomes more valuable and powerful as a political device.

Even when Mercury, our god of money.
            gives the party the elevated status

 
            among the doctors and the magi,

 

            how to remain
                        at the center
                                     of power
                                    & rework the world of love
                                                            (v. & all this unity, wisdom, wealth &, an ideal projection)

In a response to the pressures of this era, the speaker seems to shape-shift to embody the mercurial zeitgeist of the era itself. A contradicting trickster, the speaker’s oracular voice is established implicitly in the title SIBYLLINE, then disclaimed with the opening epigraph from John Nim’s The Complete Poems of Michelangelo: Not odd what’s on my mind, /when expressed, comes out weird, jumbled. Don’t berate/; no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight.

MV: The voice, the shape-shifting narrator, may likely be Michelangelo himself or one of his dumbfounded alter egos—but don’t listen to me.

NM: Ah, Mr. Vincenz, methinks you too might be tricksterish with that answer! Can I pin you down for something a bit more concrete?

MV: I prefer to think that the listener in the poem is the speaker herself.

NM: Ah, now that is intriguing; talk more about this?

MV: Here is surely an artist talking to an oracular muse, attempting to amuse that muse, to cajole, to tickle a response.  And, the response and the great breaths between provide a foreshadowing.

NM: Could the great breaths between, which I take to mean the white space on the page, and the time it takes to turn to the next page, be the questioning consciousness of the listener/reader as it reels between voices/perspectives?

MV: Yes; who shoots straight anyway? Cupid? And, what can you tell me of my future?

NM: Although the epigraph’s speaker serves to orient us to a disarming disorientation ahead, it’s also a caution (don’t say I didn’t warn you!) we hear well after we, charmed by the sleight of hand/voice of the first two pages, have boarded the vortex-bound train.

MV: I would say the narrator is possibly cautioning herself: in the labyrinth somewhere lurks the minotaur.

NM: I see; since the narrator is listener/reader/artist/muse? Or, SIBYLLINE is, to borrow from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “ a joint product of the observer and the observed?”

MV: There are frequently multiple voices in my poems.  Some may be alter egos, specters, voices from the future or the past.  In a long piece of exploratory verse, I do my best to listen to all of them and take dictation.

NM: It would appear that the whole of SIBYLLINE reflects these multiple voices and perspectives. So do you think that Krishnamurti’s comment,  “All conflict is this battle between the observer and the observed” might be more precise about what energizes the dynamic of SIBYLLINE?

MV: For sure. Dynamism arises when a conversation occurs.  Observer and observed hold their own discourse.  Neoplatonic thought, which once again was emerging during the Renaissance, held that perfection and happiness—or, if you prefer, beauty and love—would emerge through intense rumination, rumination that is informed by Platonic discussion.  (For me, beauty and love is at the heart of SIBYLLINE.)

Once again, here we have the creative impulse (Gaia) of a cosmos that thrives on communication, vibration that begins as a single note, becomes a harmonic vibration. Or, to once again coin Krishnamurti: “Truth, being limitless, cannot be organized.” There is no principle more supreme than another.

Alongside the infinitely famous Creation of Adam, featuring the iconic hand of God, (… & as God touches the finger of Adam,/ so Adam touches the hand of another— //so tantalizingly tender/

that spiral upon spiral …). Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco also depicts five Sibyls—who, as you probably know, were not mentioned in the Bible, but come from the classical (pagan) world, and who are predicting the fate of humanity.  Shortly after Michelangelo’s passing, his fresco came under strict scrutiny by the Counter-Reformation, not only for its nudity (apparently for a period the naughty bits were painted over with fig leafs and loincloths), but also for the inclusion of non-biblical figures.

Discussions take place throughout the course of history: Bacchus, Atlas, David, Moses, the Madonna, the pagan Ignudi, each trying to get a word in edgewise.  And in spite of himself, through his host of creations, Michelangelo himself stares back at us from the past.  In the in the Sistine ceiling alone, there are over 300 figures, including seven Old Testament prophets, twenty Greco-Roman athletic nudes (the Ignudi—a word minted by Michelangelo himself) and five Sibyls, observing, exchanging glances, contemplating, reaching their own prognoses.

And what of those six million people who visit the Sistine Chapel and look upward to commune with her ceiling every year? Aside from all the voices of the tourists and their multitudes of languages, imagine what a myriad of conversations are going on … Then, tying this thought into SIBYLLINE, consider what these Delphic seers would make of the future.  The entrance fee to the Vatican museums is now close to $ 30 (23 euros including audio guide) per person—which means, of course, that the Vatican is pulling in $ 180 million/year on entrance fees alone.  (I wonder if the descendants of the Medici family are getting a slice of the proverbial orange.) Now, that would make for a great Hollywood ending.

NM: I’m wondering if your talent for juggling different perspectives, different characters, eras, etc., might have been influenced by your peripatetic upbringing.  Can you speak to this?

MV: Most assuredly.  As you know I was born to a British mother and Swiss father in Hong Kong.  This made me predisposed to a dual-cultural perspective on most things; throw in the first baby steps in Asia, the continual presence of the Chinese communist party in my childhood home (my father’s business with Deng Xiao Ping’s China), the slew of expatriates from Scotland to Brazil to Japan to Australia (who worked with my father and often ended up at our house after a long day at the office) and the kids who I played with from the German-Swiss international school, and you’ve already got quite a cocktail.  As an adolescent, my father sent me away to a Benedictine monastery boarding school in the Swiss alps—with only a smattering of German (we spoke English at home), and thus I had no choice but to learn to assimilate with whatever culture, voice or language I was in the presence of. And although I always had friends, whether I was in elementary school in Hong Kong, boarding school in Switzerland, public school in rural Sussex, high school in Connecticut, college in North Carolina, I was somehow always an outsider, an observer, a third wheel—and so I learned to listen intently to each and every voice.

My mother’s father too, lived close to us in Hong Kong. He, along with my grandmother and then infant mother, had arrived there shortly after the Second World War (they were both working class Londoners) to work for the British Government as a surveyor.  He was soon treading the paddy fields on the communist Chinese border, mapping the outlying territories.  He was the first public servant in his field permitted to learn Cantonese. Eventually, he spoke it fluently. Gung Gung, as I called him (Granddad in Cantonese) was a voracious reader of literature, a talented mathematician, a great listener, an adroit linguist and avid traveler.  He helped me tune my infant ear to the vastness and multiplicity of the world.

NM: I’m fascinated by the organic, generative, lyric logic operative throughout SIBYLINNE’s narrative structure.

A microcosmic example of this in i. An unsurpassed rule of thumb, the first poem in the opening section 1. The Mermaid and the Monkey.

Hang on, while I try to delineate this pattern: The first line, Opposable. is triggered by and references thumb in the epigraphic title, as well as our primate cousin Monkey. Although Opposable also refutes the authority of unsurpassed rule, the remaining lines (Approachable/ A parable) in the first stanza are triggered by sound of the preceding line Opposable.:

  1. An unsurpassed rule of thumb

Opposable.
Approachable
A parable.

Unprecedented.
Percentages.
Patronage is a political strategy.

Perspective revolutionizes everything we see.
It touches the skies

& casts its shadows over distances,

over the humors of a city.

This logic is repeated in the second stanza; Unprecedented qualifies parable of the preceding line, and “sound” triggers, if you are still with me, Percentages, which in turn triggers Patronage.…

My ear/mind are so convinced by the sound/sense logic of the previous stanza, I don’t for a minute question the claim of the final three stanzas, Perspective revolutionizes everything we see. / It touches the skies// & casts its shadows over distances,/over the humors of the city… But!!!  I sure as hell want to know how you did it; is your process intuitive; are you ahead of your lines, or writing just as fast as you can to keep up with them?

MV: Although I’d been taking notes in a single journal, tentatively entitled The Spirit of Mercury for ages, the bulk of the poem materialized overnight.  After a first spewing-out, if you will, I spent several late-into-the-wee-hour nights refining, listening to these rhythms, melodies and harmonies.  When the notes and beats accumulate into something like a musical arrangement in my head, I know I am ready to let them flow.  The cadence and rhythm of the first words were clanging as I finally sat down to type and the “cosmic” forces were magnetically pulling them together.

SIBYLLINE’s final emergence may have something to do with the fact that I had eaten oysters for dinner the night before—Glidden Points from Maine, as a matter of fact.  Aside from the obvious, there’s something very Renaissance, very Florentine, very Medici about oysters.  The oyster or scallop shell—as made iconic by Botticelli’s Venus—is a Renaissance symbol of an ideal beauty and transcendental love.

NM: How richly serendipitous is this?: as well as an aphrodisiac, an old wives’ tale has it that oysters also bring on labor?!   How fitting that SIBYLLINE’s final emergence or birth was induced by the oyster into the manger of the scallop shell, the cradle of beauty and transcendental love!

In the Florentine glow of that image, let’s welcome our readers to wander the lovely labyrinth of SIBYLLINE.

Sibylline

by Marc Vincenz

Not odd that what’s on my mind,
when expressed, comes out weird, jumbled. Don’t berate;
no gun with its barrel screwy can shoot straight.
Giovanni, come agitate
for my pride, my poor dead art! I don’t belong!
Who’s a painter? Me? No way! They’ve got me wrong.

—The Complete Poems of Michelangelo (trans. JohnFrederick Nims)

I.

The Mermaid & The Monkey

i. An unsurpassed rule of thumb:

Opposable.
Approachable.
A parable.

Unprecedented.
Percentages.
Patronage is a political strategy.

Perspective revolutionizes everything we see.
It touches the skies

& casts its shadow over distances,
over the humors of a city.

•  •  •

In the next great commission
it’s the taste that matters—

glorifying the original sins
of the maestro della bottega.

& the birth of Venus,
Botticelli’s pagan mythologies—

to stop the devil dancing
on his shoulders,

that master of misogyny.

ii. & to measure the light in all things,

to see Daniel in the lion’s den,
serene rather than heroic

(in motion)
& the projection of human form
on heaven’s body,

just as Apollo became Jesus
& the blue light
in an Attic August surpasses

the details of posture &
the colonnades & the columns &—

•  •  •

a natural selection of forms feeding

on the spiritual crises,
on the human,
on the heroic,
on the divine,

from within the vault of dark ages
which follow the Fall

•  •  •

& into the hands of dictatorships,
despotisms or democracies

& other magical words that rattle
in the spiritual comfort of relics,

in the concrete substance
that civilizes—

where the true nature
of a building

is forgone space.

•  •  •

& the dreaming magi
in the vaults’ echoes

in the love’s labors of citizens

giving way to the splendor

of the city giving way
to the flocking pilgrims

or the “effects of good governance”

that surpass
the Black Death

iii. & the Greatest city of Rome in decay in a day,

the outpouring
where Death itself

becomes a public theater—
in suspension …

Where God made man
because he loved to hear stories—

Christ’s agonies for woman & man
in a time when there was no divorce

& the scales of Archangel Michael glimmer gold

as armies march on
to bombard city walls,

& then that falling
upon Aladdin’s den
as Christ upon his cave

•  •  •

& the four horsemen
rhapsodic,

tantalized by tortoiseshell
& rhino-horn & quetzal-feather

as surmised in Dürer’s Ritter, Tod und Teufel

melancholy on the dark side of genius

& that last word.

•  •  •

The Teutonic torture—
the twisted hands of the virgin;

O, the therapy of music
in the Atomic Age

& the torment & trial in the wilderness
the wild fantasies of Grünewald.

Was Aztec gold
a vision of the future?

iv. & in the Pantheon where Rafael was buried,

The Transfiguration,

a measured symmetry
of high society, unfinished.

The Last Supper, a ghost.
compelling, yet

lascivious, licentious
&—elusive.

In completion, reduction
or transfiguration.

The dichotomy of Apollonian or Dionysian principles.

& then, the self-doubt
of an artist with a heroic ambition.

& from that Goliath of marble
the small block of David
from the very skin of the stone,

an evocation
to impress
all comers.

•  •  •

Watch!

As Plato points
toward heaven
Aristotle points
toward the dirt.

& as God touches the finger of Adam,
so Adam touches the hand of another—

so tantalizingly tender
that spiral upon spiral

in the spirit
of the index finger.

v. & all this unity, wisdom, wealth &, an ideal projection

The illusion of two canopies.

Surely there’s more to this canonization lark?

Even when Mercury, our god of money,
gives the party an elevated status

among the doctors & the magi,

how to remain

at the center

of power

& rework

the word

of love?

vi. Loft & air

No brush, no chisel
lightens the soul.

To work though stone,
to find the wall of love

& the ice—
the wall of ice

now dissolves
in unison

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
of democracy

in this Pantheon of small gods,
& the desire

to impress

Minerva,
Mercury,
Apollo.

Unique in the world
of ever-blooming Myrtle.

vii. Light through glass in the Annunciation

YHWH.

The lion, the divine love.

Spaces of unpredicted clarity;
the turbulent light
that emerges
through the darkness.

Across the altar
in the mass
as the glory
of angels
suffuses in light.

& in the down-glow,
dogs play
just enough

to convince us
to believe.

II.

 

The Infant & The Stinging Nettle

i. Counterrevolution

The seeing & adorning,
& where the mind will be
taken care of,

in the harmony
of the spaces
loved in, lived in.

From this place
the water services

the kitchens, the gardens
& the most excellent fruit.

This painting is large
& could hold

many many
figurines.

ii. The eyes that behold

in the fountain of the aristocrat’s garden
among the swans & ducks,
& goldfish,
the king of the beasts
brandishes a sword—

& once again
the light resounds
divine providence

& the bees carry
the keys to the kingdom.

Is it not a time
to draw perspective?

iii. The heartbeat of a building

Transverberation.

Fragrant hymns of praise
& divine celebration—
the smoke of creation.

Journeys that do not end.

Surpassing the sweetness of pain,
the institution’s divine right to rule.

What is the vocabulary of power?

You can’t read the features
until you’re up close to the travails,
observe the naked benevolence,

the descent from the cross
with only one hand
on the reins—

•  •  •

O the arcs & the swirls …

Where the eye cannot focus
as one myth assails another

& suffused with nostalgia
within the shadows
of sculpted space,

in the everyman
of everyday
departing for the Isle of Cythera.

iv. & in the microcosm of the garden,

the effects of past time,
the truth unveiled,

movements
between the hills & the dales.

•  •  •

The art of liberty.

The staking out of order
& that fever
of Revolution.

Was it just the failure
of the harvest?

or was it the oath
in the mausoleum?

v. A secular pied d’etat, a political ideal

Now the stars of the empire

far from the magic bean

of enlightenment,

the urban proletariat

& the clouds of Revolution

gathering.

The abstraction

that prepares us

to give our lives.

The anecdotal.

A natural being

with untamed appetite.

The primacy

of the eye

on the surface of appearances

An imprecise definition of form.

O how the light

modifies matter

& toys with grand design.

vi. Worshipping the serene Buddha

When does the disquiet
become bourgeois

& the yawning background

descend

in celestial revelations?

v. On the Sun’s consciousness

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.

& the savage made congenial through—

impromptu, flimsy,

but deadly serious
pure plastic rhythm.

•  •  •

Oh to follow the flight of the swallow
through the storm of the future

& to become
that bird
in space
in your own right.

vi. How to remove the object from the center of the eye?

Space & sense

& the dream

& then, the enthusiasm

of Man as iceberg.
All those babblers, dilettantes & swindlers

opening doors

into different futures,
following the minotaur.

vii. But a shadow falls upon history

repairing the shattered cultures
& thus
backs
turn

into their own expression
followed by sand

& waste

& rubble,

o—no subject,
but content …

no document
seared
in the corners

of a lifetime
within a fixed timeline
degrading the colors—

•  •  •

the speed of change,

the saturation

of objects,

packing,

preparing
for a wide spread—

•  •  •

unheroic,

anywhere,

anything,
no more windows,
but a field, a horizon,
an assemblage,
a tremulous clutter

in the small,

the mundane,

the profane, then the real

viii. & the disposable,

A libation.
A liberation.

The transformation of the flesh,
sweeping away,
generating a vision
of what already is

with immediate
content—the dissidents
& their images of glory.

•  •  •

Watch closely!

•  •  •

Here come the corporate collectors.

Abstractions have become ordinary
& the myth of progress
grinds down to a tiretrack.

What controversy?

ix. Where’s the leverage in the pluralism?

What then can we say
of the symbols of belief?

Can you hear the silence
of history breaking?

The phantoms inform
but do not transform.

•  •  •

Inject yourself back
into the earth
& become a sphere.

Become evidence
of former lives.

You can only predict
the probability
at odds
with experience.

x. Still, in the knot of perspective,

a voice-over says:

All roads are traveled.
Vibration determines everything.

O, if only
for a quick, tight
Hollywood
ending.

 

Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong, is British-Swiss and has published eight books of poetry. He has lived in England, Switzerland, Iceland, Hong Kong and China, but recently moved to the United States and now resides in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

 

Nancy Mitchell, a 2012 Pushcart Prize recipient, is the author of two volumes of poetry: The Near Surround and Grief Hut. Her poems have appeared in Agni, Poetry Daily, Salt Hill Journal, and Green Mountains Review.

Featured Selection Issue #52 November 2015
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