The Big Forgetting
Foreword to Marc Vincenz’s Mao’s Mole (Neopoiesis Press, 2013) followed by an interview with the author, both by Tom Bradley.
At the beginning of this book our poet is climbing the Kunlun Mountains, paradise of the Taoists, mythical source of the Yellow River. All at once, “naturally, as you might expect,” an old man materializes from behind a tree. He leads our poet to the expected cave, shows him the expected book with the names and specifications of “anyone who has ever dared live.” Our poet finds his own entry, and what does it comprise? Nothing less than the 112 poems of Mao’s Mole. Subsumed under the rubric Marc Vincenz is the most exhaustive yet intimate rendering of modern China in all of Indo-European poetry. He has literally made this infinite civilization his own. It’s a just claim.
In the first poem, Cixi, the last Empress Dowager, is disdaining her “useful dolts” as they kowtow to the billiard table which Queen Victoria has given her. From there, Mao’s Mole sweeps all the way forward to the millennium we upstart occidentals quaintly call our “third.” Along the way, Mao himself, poetaster tutelary and eponymous bugaboo, makes his entrance. Still young, wan, thin and affable, he stands on top of the Exalted Mountain, and proclaims the east to be that certain notorious hue, only to wind up “vacuum-sealed, embalmed, death defying” in his crystal casket. A couple blocks away, “Starbucks yawns wide behind the knobbed doors of heaven.”
Meanwhile, naturally, as you might expect, Deng Xiaoping materializes, hawking his Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. In Marc Vincenz’s revision, the superannuated dwarf must deal with a contingent of Shaolin monks who show up at the Tienanmen Square massacre “shooting thunderbolts from their fingers.” Deng’s dictum about the glory of getting rich inspires schemes of karaoke bars in Shanghai’s old alleys; but his touted modernization fails to confiscate shards of dragon eggshells from a rural child, urbanized but not cured of feudal superstition.
As always in any Marc Vincenz book there are the lovely women, fresh with “tiny pinprick breasts like ripe buds of corn,” and, of course, the food. In this case, it’s the street stall cuisine we China hands have known so well: spitting seeds and bits of rind, where fish heads and spines lay rotting amongst flies. Accommodations are provided courtesy of hotels with names like Red Star, where you must battle the rats for rights to the apple, compliments of the manager.
Mao’s Mole has much truck with factories and their managers, for our poet himself spent ten years in that purgatory, in cahoots with bankers and party muckety-mucks, steeped in corruption of such intensity as can only be achieved in the world’s oldest continuous bureaucracy. Naturally, as you might expect, the poetry achieves some of its highest pitches under these unpoetic circumstances:
…it’s all leaching under the foundations
can’t let the shareholders know or the factory would close
I just smiled back & cheered our good health—
The world was big & cancer was everywhere
in the meat, in the bread, the sky, the unflinching earth
only in Iceland will the volcanoes get you
& then there was factory kingpin Ying
with the blue phone glued to his ear—
he who rose from the communist earth
In his previous collection, Gods of a Ransacked Century (Unlikely Books), Marc Vincenz gave us a full cosmology, from the materia prima of tachyon waves to hydrogen bombs and rocket salads. He provides nothing less in Mao’s Mole. The people of the Flowery Middle Kingdom have long considered their walled world coextensively coterminous with the cosmos, relegating any outliers to triviality and irrelevance. Marc Vincenz is one of the few barbarians who has entered and encompassed their universe.
Having lived and wandered there for some years, I can affirm that Marc Vincenz’s is the clearest, most intelligent and emotionally intense evocation of that unfathomable place I’ve ever read in verse or prose. Everything is on these pages, the poisoned as well as the pristine, all presented with hallucinatory concision by easily the strongest living poet in our language.
I interviewed Marc Vincenz recently, as follows:
3:AM: China’s long, nearly static history, climaxed with the past hundred years of political and economic upheavals, make for what must be the world’s most difficult subject to treat exhaustively. But that is just what you have done in Mao’s Mole. Did you set out to deal with the subject of national, racial and tribal metamorphosis, using China as an especially vivid and extreme example?
MV: Not at first. Individual pieces arrived sporadically: on the edges of dreams, were clipped from conversations in karaoke bars, on noodle stands, at the train station, arose as flashbacks of memories and past lives. Although each voice or image is singular, they are also born out of a communal mythology, a common “becoming” — in a way, the various characters stitched themselves together (some zigzagged, others loosely tacked themselves on). I was taken aback myself when I observed from a distance and watched the bigger picture come into focus.
About halfway through, I realized that Mao’s Mole was about far more than just the individual narratives. Yes, there were individual stories, individual characters, but there was also a basso ostinato running through the heart of the book. Each of these individuals shared an embedded and deeply rooted commonality. It took me a while to figure out what exactly that was.
3:AM: Do you want to get explicit? Will you identify that ostinato for us, or are we on our own?
MV: I am little skeptical of delving into the theory of my own creative work, but, ok, let me give it a go.
As rituals, icons, philosophies and myths move into a technological, economically-driven future, intentions are diffused; they are amended to fulfill revised and cross-purposes; they become muddied or watered-down, reinterpreted or revised and evolve (or are evolved) to fit contemporary desires. In this manner, as civilizations evolve, so too do their mythologies — as their emperors, kings, priests, dictators and elected leaders reinvent religion and social structures. This mutated iconography (although seemingly from a distant past) embeds itself in a nation’s revised (self-) consciousness, promising a better, more-balanced future with a faint whiff of the past. Perhaps this is the great deceit of what we call “civilization.”
3:AM: Socialism with Chinese characteristics springs to mind.
MV: Yes, to cite one especially unsubtle example. In a layered papier-mâché of propaganda, rhetoric and perceived history, these symbols integrate into a single entity capable of feeding upon itself; just like the multiple-celled organism, civilization splits, conjoins, mutates and evolves with multiple adaptations on multiple islands.
Perhaps at its most basic level, Mao’s Mole is a cinematic journey through China’s last hundred-or-so years, offering snapshots, incidental reflections and moments of flux across a broad spectrum of the Middle Kingdom’s citizens and their foreign guests. On wider levels, the book poses deep questions of society, identity and culture; Mao’s Mole concerns itself with the development of icons, figureheads and modern mythology in today’s China; with the making of modern nations; with our dented twenty-first century mythologies.
3:AM: It’s an understatement to call Mao’s Mole ambitious; yet the book holds together miraculously well. Each of the individual poems moves to the next according to an organizing principle that is so organic as to be suspected rather than discerned. Clearly, historical epochs, dynasties, and Five-Year Plans are part of the structure, but you have dispensed with mere chronology, to offer a deeper series of connections. Can you reveal something of your framework here, to the extent it was consciously built?
MV: Although mostly portrayed as such, history, of course is actually non-linear — at the very least in the way we perceive it. Surely personal memory and “real” history are intertwined, become distorted or magnified. I mean how much do any of us remember of our earliest years of childhood? Perhaps we recall a handful of significant moments, but are these recollections really the way things happened?
Yes, it was very tempting to follow that straight arrow of time, but it’s really the crucial moments, the so-called epiphanies, the turning points that create change and paint a personal history in the mind’s inner eye.
On another level, I realized that each of these narratives represented some of those moments that were missing from documented history—moments that would likely never receive public attention, rather part of what someone once termed, “the big forgetting.” How could these multiple journeys of so many individuals be portrayed in a linear fashion? It seemed implausible; after all, it was these individual “little epiphanies” (or little deaths) that stitched the book together, that created what you have called the organic (or perhaps biometric) structure.
And yes, just as the Chinese Communist Party’s Five-Year Plan, Mao’s Mole is a work in five movements; each movement represents an era or a wave of social, economic or emotional transition that, in turn, is followed by singular passages of discord, dispersion, acceptance and assimilation. Underpinned by the faux poetry of Mao’s propaganda, each of these movements is expressed in a layering of reflections, narratives, slogans, images, quips and asides, as a multitude of individual voices merge into one tentative organism.
Another way of thinking of the structure is to envision Mao’s Mole as a Philip Stark score in five movements — with brief intermezzos between each major movement. Like Stark, these movements begin with a simple melodic phrase, but slowly, as more tones underlie the melody, it expands, divests, until, despite (or in spite of) the ambient noise (the background radiation), the original phrase reverberates somewhere in the subconscious.
3:AM: Mao himself is the Moses of this Pentateuch, the Christ of this Gospel. You don’t respect him overmuch as a poet, but you have spelunked his labyrinthine character and provided a psychological portrait that rivals any yet written in prose. Can you talk about your conception of him as man and myth?
MV: Even the most evil genius, is a genius. Aside from Confucius and Lao Tze, Mao is without a shadow of a doubt, China’s most famous son. He’s been compared to Hitler, Stalin, Bonaparte, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, yet he portrayed himself as a reactionary poet, a sensitive scholar and, at the same time, a man of the common folk. We know enough now from the multitude of biographies and a few dissident former Party members who have come out of the closet (and haven’t been “taken out”) that he was nothing like a common man. He lived the lush life of an emperor.
And even after all of his disasters and catastrophes, he’s still hailed as a demigod; the ultimate symbol of Chinese independence and nationalism.
Not so long ago, I asked a Beijing friend of mine if she thought his portrait might one day be taken down from Tienanmen Square. She smiled wryly and told me that it would be utterly unthinkable. Imagine if Hitler’s portrait still stared down at you from the Brandenburg Gate — that too is unthinkable. It would defy all moral sensibilities and common sense; yet Mao, the demigod, watches over his people, above the gates of the fallen “Emperor’s” Forbidden City. If you wouldn’t know better you’d think there was some kind of a sick inside joke going on.
3:AM: And Mao fuels the book’s momentum?
MV: Loosely speaking. Each of Mao’s Mole‘s movements is derived from Mao’s own propaganda machine — as his empire rises and falls, and rises and falls again. The book closes with the foreshadowing of a probable Second Coming — and just as other civilizations have begged their gods return, so too Mao’s spirit is requested to arise and lead his good comrades back into the red light, into the good fight.
3:AM: One of the great delights of this collection is the cast of characters, each drawn with the detail and depth one usually associates with novels. Of course, each story is unique and worthy of being told in its own right, but tell us who some of your favorite characters are, and what function you see them serving in the greater structure.
MV: I suppose it’s only through this wily and varied cast of characters that the true picture can emerge. No, no favorite. They all have their role to play.
3:AM: How about if I suggest some of my own favorites? I am thinking of the young man in “The Analects of Wu Wei: Virtuous Dog Meat,” who extolls the Taoist virtues of eating dog while driving to work in a Mercedes. Another vivid personage is the eponymous “Citizen Julius Wong,” the one-armed ex-Communist Party cadre now settled on the island of Fiji, who advises rebel generals and swims with parrot fish. There’s the “Tai Chi Master” who practices his art to produce nuclear fission; Lu Xi, the poor factory line worker in “Legs, Hands, Fingers,” who has lost the feeling in her hands and believes herself to be transforming into a serpent: and the businessman in “While Facing the Urinal” who is offered an assassin’s services while trying to urinate.
MV: Yes, these are all people struggling to come to terms with the same morphing mythology: five-thousand-plus years of history condensed in the metaphor of the Cultural Revolution — a quintessential “rethinking” of all that ever was.
Each character, phrase or passage is a symbolically linked thread of a continually evolving web of convention, misinformation and misconstruction — and yet, all of these individuals’ fates are reflected in some skewed sense of the primordial in a modern beauty: one among many nations facing a schizophrenic future.
3:AM: You know China at all levels, as only an expatriate can, and an adventurous expatriate at that. If you think it won’t taint readers’ enjoyment of Mao’s Mole, please tell us voyeurs something about any autobiographical truck you might have had with the Flowery Middle Kingdom: formative prepubescent traumas, travels, misadventures, Sino-fornication and so forth. For example, I have heard that you were actually born in the neighborhood, and at a key moment in their history.
MV: I don’t know about all levels. I don’t believe anyone can ever know a place, a race, a tribe or a nation, and particularly one as vast, varied and ancient as China. Expatriate? Maybe. But then again, I was born in the Middle Kingdom, so does that make me Chinese? If not in race or culture, perhaps in spirit? You’d have to ask my Chinese friends.
3:AM: Even John Paton Davies went to his grave a waiguoren.
MV: True. Shortly after I came into the world, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was in full-on class struggle behind the bamboo curtain. Even in our “colonial jewel” that was Hong Kong, Maoist separatists were chanting revolutionary slogans outside capitalist factories, planting bombs down at Victoria Harbor, tossing Molotov cocktails into bourgeois shop fronts.
Mum’s father (I called him Gung Gung, the Cantonese for grandfather) had been posted to the colony just after World War II. His official task was to map Hong Kong and all its outlying islands and territories; as I came to find out later, his unofficial detail was to keep an eye out for revolutionary activities in border areas. Gung Gung was one of the very few British government employees given permission to learn what the other civil servants called “a rather distasteful tongue.”
3:AM: Some of the most fascinating poems in the book pertain to the pursuit of capitalist enterprises deep inside the world’s hugest communist dictatorship. What is your background in this delicate field of endeavor?
MV: My own father entered into a business partnership with a Shanghai businessman who had a penchant for bloody steaks and Peking Opera, and, who had fled China’s Revolution in the 50s. Strangely, despite his having fled the Republic, this Shanghai businessman still had notable connections within the Party. He and Dad built a business selling raw materials (from as far afield as the US, Canada, Brazil, Chile, South Africa and Tasmania) to the Communist Party and its singular ministries. (In those days all business in China was centralized: one ministry, one commodity.)
No matter where we lived — Hong Kong, Zurich, New York, London — there was hardly a month we didn’t have a cadre or comrade visiting our home. (My mother made sure we had a good stock of corn on the cob. It seemed to be a Party favorite.) Already in these years, the late 60s and 70s, Mao’s Party Line crept surreptitiously into our daily conversations. And in the 80s, when we lived in Connecticut and Dad was working in New York, we were sure our phone lines were being tapped on both sides. At his offices, Dad received regular visits from Men in Black. An ongoing family joke was a question that had been frequently posed to Dad: “Mr. Vincenz are you a member of the Communist Party?”
In the nineties, after having worked for businesses in Hong Kong and China myself, I finally ventured it on my own. I spent the good part of the late nineties and early two-thousands living and working in and out of Shanghai and Beijing, where I reluctantly tumbled headfirst into the growing economic powerhouse that China was starting to become. Despite the echoes of Tienanmen, Deng Xiao Ping’s “Get Rick Quick” scheme had taken a firm hold. Possibly one of the first lessons I learned first-hand is that in China absolutely nothing is ever as it seems.
3:AM: Your poetry derives richness and energy from the gigantic contradictions China poses on the world stage. How do you manage to draw such immediate and personal poetry from these economic, political and historical tectonics?
MV: China is, of course, one of the most culturally and historically significant civilizations on our planet, and has much to offer the open-minded. Yet even now, the shadow of Mao’s legacy hangs heavy over the Middle Kingdom. Guy Sorman, French economist and sinologist has said: “The Propaganda Department functions with ruthless efficiency, making gullible foreigners accept unquestioningly whatever it chooses to put out: economic statistics that cannot be verified, trumped-up elections, blanked-out epidemics, imaginary labor harmony, and the purported absence of any aspiration for democracy.”
Of course, you can never know a people or a nation. And despite my many experiences within China and with her citizens, I will always remain an outsider; yet my impressions of these people, their landscapes, heartaches and laughter — and, above all, their ongoing attempt to come to grips with an ancient legacy, with Communist doubletalk and the current Party’s proto-Marxist capitalism (a dichotomy if ever there was one) — continues to baffle and astound me.
I lived close to my Chinese colleagues and friends, broke bread with them, shared tears with them, consoled and laughed with them. How could I not become personally entangled in their lives? Although few of the poems refer to specific people (you know who you are), all of them are shadows or ghosts of people I have known on some level.
3:AM: This personal and autobiographical element has an uncanny effect on your presentation of the nation at large. The intimacy crosses over, until the unimaginable is encompassed: China becomes a microcosm. It feels strange even to say that.
MV: Absolutely. I have come to see this ultra-rapid, development of the Chinese nation from a country of emperors and robber barons, through Mao’s Cultural Revolution, to its present “economic coming of age” as a metaphor for the development of modern “civilization.” In many ways what China has survived in the last forty years is much akin to Europe’s Industrial Revolution of the mid-Nineteenth Century. And despite the fact that much of the western world believes China is on a narrow path to taking over the global economy, one must bear in mind that eighty percent of China’s population still lives in abject poverty. The money and power remains in the hands of the few — most of them well intertwined in the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party — China’s modern emperors and warlords.
3:AM: One is put in mind of your Revolutionary Commander, merciful and jocular, who addresses his troops in the penultimate poem of section one.
MV: Right. In China today, you experience the greatest extremes of wealth and poverty, injustice and indifference. For me, Mao’s Mole is not just about China’s recent history, but about how time and again, myth is being reinvented to serve the purposes of the powers-that-be under the guise of modernizing a nation.
3:AM: Excellent. How about ending this interview with a sample from Mao’s Mole?
MV: Sure, Tom. Here’s an excerpt from “Why Yang Wants to Leave Wolf Mountain”
And Yang and I become the double-entendre of all Wu county,
that staccato at the end of a Peking opera played on fields of barley—
an embarrassment for those with no faith, but a miraculous creation
for those who worship the salacious Buddha with the pot belly
like faithful Grandpa Ye who Mother says is incorrigible.
Evenings when he sips dragon brew from his chipped red cup
he chortles in our ears—in those days we have only one little Red Book—
but he sits there plunked on the edge of our bed, stomping
to scare off night mice, to ease us into our dreams with ancient tales
of villagers passing through winter’s cold fingers, of fading
into the soft-snow of god-sky, only to remerge
as black-necked cranes under our mountain’s early haze.
Grandpa Ye claims he knows each crane by name,
every unique swell and swagger, each bellow and grunt;
who flutters brazen like Great Auntie Ma or sways
on one leg like Great-grandmother Shie, and he jests
that Uncle Fu always gobbled too many fried dumplings,
croaked & ruffled his wings in a huff, but just like any crane,
deeply admired the round paleness of our spring moon
over Wolf Mountain; perhaps because it reminded him
of the crisp butter pancakes Auntie Ma would roast
on freezing winter nights, stuffed with scallions,
raisins and that secret recipe of hers for sticky brown rice.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Tom Bradley has published twenty-five volumes of fiction, essays, screenplays and poetry. His latest collaborations with visual artists include Family Romance (Jaded Ibis Productions), Felicia’s Nose (MadHat Press), We’ll See Who Seduces Whom: a graphic ekphrasis in verse (Unlikely Books) and Elmer Crowley: a katabasic nekyia (Mandrake of Oxford).
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 5th, 2013.