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Treading Water and Light: A Tetralogy by Marc Vincenz

By Tom Bradley.

Becoming the Sound of Bees

Marc Vincenz, Becoming the Sound of Bees (Ampersand Books, 2015), The Syndicate of Water & Light (Station Hill Press, 2018), Leaning into the Infinite: Unspeakable Desires and Something Stereophonic Unsettles the Breeze (Dos Madres Press, 2018)

Hong Kong-born poet Marc Vincenz covers a vast breadth of geographical, temporal and intellectual territory. Take but one of his books as a case in point, Becoming the Sound of Bees, which swings from an island where the parrots speak four languages, to the place where the Amargo tree grows; from the “arms of the marshy tundra”, to a certain Hideaway Motel owned and operated by one Frank; from a medical convention in Victorian Oxford, to a colonial outpost on the Irrawaddy Delta; from the lands of Chakras and Qi and Zen, all the way to “where beer was once served lukewarm”.

Vincenz is every bit as pelagic as Conrad and Melville. He’s faced with a new kind of watery element that “spits and froths green bile along her worn edges”. He provides a searingly vivid picture of our current pathological ecosystem, where “something always has to be made, and something else has to be made to make it” and “torn billboards still intrude with their ambition”. Along the way we meet people who recur with all the idiosyncratic solidity of the most gripping fiction.

Becoming the Sound of Bees starts out listening for its eponymous creatures, but hears none, the listener being something of a pupa in a cocoon on the early pages. Honeycombs begin not as sources of Swiftian sweetness and light, but sloughs of despond. Honeybees themselves, initially silent, burn like fire at the stake. The hive is the shadow of death, full of sand fleas that stand in for the desiderated insects, along with “scrubitch” mites, Hercules caterpillars and flies: “electro-kinetic pellets flecking / blank walls.” The planet and its atmosphere, thus un-bred, become a single organism whose surface swarms with flotsam, jetsam and scabs reincarnating as silverfish. Earth’s innards comprise more non-beehives that pullulate instead with arachnids and microbes and single cells that Vincenz eventually nurtures to dinosaurhood.

We meet former human cultures who made hive-like arrangements: “the Cucuteni—who incinerated their own homes before wandering on….” or the “Bajau Laut tribes of Semporna who built their homes on coral reefs in the ocean.” And that settled ocean, as often with Vincenz, is near. It’s the opposed cosmos, again not a social insect world, but buzzing with “fish, not in shoals, not in pods, but singularly alone like us.”

However, complete solitude is not our lot, because the seashore is inhabited by a remarkable figure: beachcombing Ivan in his ragged rope belt. He recurs throughout Becoming the Sound of Bees, making sense, or nonsense, of everything: “screaming blue at the sea”, braving the heavy metals of that other social creature, the bedded oyster, his eyes watering as he surveys the city’s polluted human hive. Through sheer dint of numberless invention, Becoming the Sound of Bees hums louder and more beautifully than any of our world’s collapsing colonies.


There is another sort of hum, which, in its micro-frequencies, has been implicated in those very collapses. Its effect on our minds is no less jangling, and is evoked in the title of another Vincenz book: Something Stereophonic Unsettles the Breeze.

In 1881, a newfangled relay of twin telephone transmitters fetched a coloratura aria from the Paris Opera House to a pair of human ears ensconced at the Palais de l’Industrie across town. For the first time, the illusion of “binauricular audition” was induced, dead centre, inside the human skull and, in that instant, stereophony became part of our lives. Later, another layer of technological falsity came to obtrude (theretofore nonexistent, as it doesn’t occur in the non-human world, where noise and music are more than doubly sourced), closer to the lately trademarked surround-sound Dolby Atmos. Thus, the Something in this book’s title unsettles the breeze, as it represents the groping of the cosmos by what Marc Vincenz has termed the “nimble-fingered mind”:

How nothing
is the sound
of itself…  
There is no space
to consider
the weather,
when some-
thing stereo-
phonic un-
settles the breeze.

The contrivances by which this tinkering intrusion is evoked are by means of rhyme and metre’s nutsy-boltsy artifice, through the evolution of human invention, ending paradoxically on a noiseless onomatopoeia in the poem entitled ‘From a Nimble-Fingered Mind’:

The needle, the awl, the pot 
the brazier, the spade, the knot 
the bellows, the nail & the screw 
the harness, the hook & the shoe 
the string, the lever, the loom, 
the button, the wheel, the silent kaboom

This cacophony is brought to bear not only on the airwaves, but the page, when Vincenz tips his technical hand—“Yes, the hand, the hand, / the hand’s the thing—to rig a new form. We are given cross-talk interlocutions between tweeter Orpheus and woofer Prometheus, mediated, simultaneously, by the subwoofer Sibyl, the kleptomaniacal seeress of Cumae, who “burns bones / for mystic comfort.”

A related form is patented in other poems, visually similar, where lines are sundered in half and separated into two columns, to synaestheticise for our eyes the effect of what was perceived so long ago at the Palais de l’Industrie. Something like tinnitus (or the drone of a beehive) rings from deep inside the left speaker cabinet, “in waves & weaves & whistles / in the inner ear…. to unwind the cables / of mankind…/ the fuzz / of static / becomes not revelation, but rhetoric—.”

Meanwhile, laments for the passing of monaural low-fidelity can be heard: “…that carnival music— / the hurdy-gurdy / of the carousel, the stuttering / strobe-frame of the artificial horsemane/ the blur of the brass band…. What is the sound of citizens walking / in a new age of supple soles?” And what of the advent of the metallurgy that made sound reproduction possible in the first place (from ‘Ode to a Metalworker from Sumerian Heaven’): “…the smith & / the forge at the fire with its ore & / layer over layer hammered / into dented submission…” “malachite fell into the fire / from whence flowed the blood / of the stone, the backbone / of the city cast in her multi-/ tude of incorrigible faces….” “If it were melted / a hundred times, it should not be spoiled / with the dross of this world…”

But, before we can succumb all the way to nostalgia, we are reminded of one timeless instance of Bronze Age proto-quadrophony, a triumph, when, in Palestine, a tower tottered under forty feet of “crud that civilizes”, and tumbled down to the Sensurround Sound of Joshua’s priests’ horns—to which our poet responds with a re-echoing hoot: “Thar she blows!”

Marc Vincenz has time-travelled with us through the three metallic periods of the physical anthropologists. He has traced human capability through the flaky industriousness of the lithic age, to the point where Prometheus brings humanity the combustive means to “cut into the heart / of stone”. This turns out not merely to be a technological shot in our collective arm, but: “A paradox that stone-blood / became the heart of man / & with it the tin that was bronze…”

What must follow is the regularly scheduled “cast iron life ahead”, with its eventual, inevitable Palais de l’Industrie and its unprecedented ways of cramming the ears and mind with unnaturalness: the third clanking epoch, of which, according to Robinson Jeffers (the poet who, believing that mankind is too self-absorbed to see the “astonishing beauty of things”, coined the word “inhumanism”) in an epigraph to Book One, nothing will remain.

In its place, Vincenz prophesies a post-industrial “space filled / in with small / kingdoms / breathing [phonograph] / needlepoints of noise. Years / burn. Flesh turns / to stone, but how / does it turn back?” The general gist might here sound mournful enough. But Something Stereophonic Unsettles the Breeze is the farthest thing from sad. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche talks about “Greek cheerfulness”. Though this mood eventually degenerated into chipper superficiality (among pre-Socratics it comprised a fit Apollonian response to the chaotic madness of Dionysianism). In this book the cheerfulness of the Homeric epos (which “lies in sunshine”, according to Emerson) is reflected in ample allusions to Odysseus, Circe, Orpheus, Dionysus and Aphrodite. The far-flung settings we’ve come to expect from the vastly travelled Vincenz are here classically antique: dusk on the Aegean, the emptily pregnant banks of the River Po. 


The protagonist in Unspeakable Desires, Uncle Fernando, is the farthest thing from a reprobate, but can be seen as Promethean in the more universally accepted sense. Like Ivan, his remarkable counterpart in Becoming the Sound of Bees, he takes upon himself the responsibility of making sense, or nonsense, of the world. He discourses beautifully on everything from soil to poesy. He summons the wind and ranges far afield as Oaxaca and Malaysia, meanwhile filling us in on the elusive Theory of Everything and all the other perpetual paradoxes of contemporary cosmology—

what is water and what is light?— 
both neither particle nor wave?…

…The entanglement. 
Is this where we finally wake up?

It’s no surprise Uncle Fernando chooses to tangle with inextricabilities that, in the absence of proof, can only be conjured magickally. He is far too emotionally involved to fill beachcomber Ivan’s more or less assured didactic function, because, in accordance with Vincenz’s master-epigraph (a multiple cry of accruing doubt, which, like all well-chosen mottoes of its kind, fits the book with karma’s iron collar) he has been cast in the unenviable role of Dickens’ Pip. As such, he has his Estella to love and be driven to distraction by.

The master epigraph of Unspeakable Desires is a paste-up of the contradictory endings of Great Expectations, culled from manuscripts, various printings and footnotes in scholarly editions. Before we get to Marc Vincenz, we must writhe along with Dickens as he tortures himself with indecision regarding the pointlessness or potential consummation of Pip’s lifelong adoration of Estella.

Fernando’s predicament is even more precarious than his Victorian counterpart, for, in this case, Estella is a teaser of souls. She fills this function to such an exacerbated degree as, on occasion, to blot out our authorial eye, leaving him like Oedipus with Mother’s brooch-pin dangling from his orbit, or Galileo in 1638—as we are reminded in an interior epigraph: shrivelled up into such a narrow compass as is filled by my own bodily sensations.

Uncle Fernando’s fellow “old soul” is something so formidable as a sibyl, and is named such, with an upper-case Ess. He does not hesitate to consult her superior wisdom with regard to “what medicine eases a lifetime”, and whether laughter is the correct reaction to the ever-distorting landscape in which all of Vincenz’s remarkable books are set. Her responses, more than once, are not to answer, but to hush him, as if he were a pipsqueak importuning a star:

Clear your mind 
of dreams, she says.

Sybil talks Uncle Fernando back down to the socialised Earth, singing him the pre-quantum “dance of atoms”, quoting passé Newton, assuring him that his senses are, after all, adequate gauges of reality. At the same time, like appearance-flouting Proteus, she keeps popping in and out of innumerable guises. She’s suddenly a Neolithic yoghurt-squeezing nomad with her flocks, spreading grass seeds across the Eurasian steppes, telling us that the future cereal of civilisations, if its tousled blades are read like Sanskrit, “is the very writing on the wall”. Yet, on almost the next page, she has metamorphosed into the self-contradicting Virgilian sybil, who, in literary verse, extols the oral over the written.

She comes, goes and reappears with a vengeance, pirouetting in a Nietzschean eternal return. Now she’s wearing the blindfold of Lady Justice with the scales, yet in her other hand brandishing the flaming shield of injustice’s archetype, Achilles. Perhaps, like Pessoa, upon whom another extended section of the book is brilliantly modelled, she bristles with innumerable heteronyms, some of which tag horrendous personas. She is the swarthy sybil of Gérard de Nerval, that notorious taker of silken-leashed lobsters on boulevard walks, who auto-slaughtered but was permitted a death-mass at Notre Dame because (so the practitioners of priestcraft reasoned), with such a pet, he must not have known what he was doing: absolved by reason of insanity. If this is a hint that Fernando is being driven to self-expunging distraction, it qualifies him for top billing among the dramatis personae at the Athenian Dionysia.


Just as the trios of tragedies entered into that festival were each rounded off with a satyr play, so is this tetralogy of discursive Vincenzian poetry completed with The Syndicate of Water & Light. It’s the farce that climaxes our religious rite; hence the aptness of its subtitle: A Divine Comedy.

This ultimate book is deposited upon our doorstep not by Amazon drone, but via the spaceship of our ancestors—“a tribe who has been to paradise and heard unspeakable words, who, From the surface of an unpeopled world…” “followed knowledge like a sinking star.” They have shown up wondering, after the fact:

Is there not a place 
we know exists without 
having landed on it?

…Or, do all actions 
determine our geography?

These forebears of ours, to whom we refer in the first person plural, have come to fetch us this most disorienting bit of wisdom—

…never forget, things are not 
what a language names them.

—thereby embarking us in a reading exercise in which we engage

Language… created 
by positive deductions contrary to our thinking, 
this uncharted territory 
through which the small mind traverses.

If there is any doubt that our thinking is about to butt up against contrariness, we’ve only to consider some of the epigraphs in The Syndicate of Water & Light.

The language that comes 
with matter 
is the matter that comes 
with language.

When the past is always with you, 
it may as well be present; 
& if it is present, 
it will be future as well.

Quickly, we are plunged into another Vincenzsian eco-dystopia, not unlike that of Becoming the Sound of Bees:


impenetrable thicket 
of pipes & tubes 
of valves & bolts & flanges

& meters & dials pushing red, 
of scaffolding & metal tanks 
& columns of distillation bleeding

runoff into groundwater….

This is meant to prepare us for—

…a future 
where grounded research continues 
into the shifting states of an Otherworld…

—an hallucinated “je-ne-sais-quoi / of a liquid state”, where the water of this book’s title is syndicated, and  “…where Land becomes the iron hand /of the Othermind…”

Foreglimpses of that future are allowed in Jungian “back- / ward-looking dreams or / forward-looking anticipations.” But, until the End Time itself actually arrives with the final section of the book, we are left “Groping in an alphabet soup”. Floundering in the tureen among the dissolving consonant- and vowel-shaped noodles, we realise, urgently as never before, “there is no world beyond / our verbal capacities”.

What is Vincenz foreboding here? What kind of future can rob of us our verbal capacities, in which “none of our cells are the same / as when we first touched down” in our ancestors’ spaceship? What type of structural component can replace the human being’s round and irregular animal eukaryotes? Remember, this is the satyr play to close off the tragic trilogy that has gone before. The Greek farces tended to degenerate into orgies of tripping, besotted dance numbers on the part of the chorus. This being a book rather than a stage production, what do we have that can be disassembled and scattered in chaotic bits?

To leave nothing 
but fingerprints, 
fragments, mist…

a dream— 
a semblance, or bones 
walking into the void…

White air wisps… 
dissolving in a gust

The act of writing itself undergoes dissection into its constituents. The processes that once, before we drew so near to this tetralogy’s devastated climax, comprised the very point and pleasure of literary composition, are reduced to “demonisation” (a term that can only have an ironic connotation in this progressively de-spiritualised milieu): 

that fusses, a sense of what 
words have become, work 
on corralling the hardy ones, 
go in, go out, what comes 
easy is easy to believe, re-
order, write, real ideas are few, 
exasperate, conflate, context- 
ualize. Go ahead. Demonize.

Reading fares no better, when we are seen

Mining the books 
for hidden knowledge, 
finding the secret, 
the curious teaching discarded, the end 
of religion in one sense 
or corrected in careless 

“Time,” we are told, “to be fair, dies when language dies.” And we are in the middle of that very process of extinction. In the poem ‘Full Effect’, the poet is exhorted as follows:

…listen to your calling. 
We can step forward 
into a different sun.

But the engagement of another spaceship will be necessary, to translate us to another solar system, as this farce is well on the way to scattering the present one to the cosmic winds: “The sun is an accident, a Prelude to something else.”

The bad news only now begins to come in earnest: “Grammar isn’t / what it’s cracked up to be.” For the poet, that’s equivalent to being told the local plasma sphere has become structurally unsound. Yet, unlike inhabitants of other planets, we are disallowed the comfort of shielding our eyes: “Read between the lines with your nefarious mind… Look deep, stare, gawk…Oh, you so misunderstand…We read far too much.”

Literary endeavours thus torn from our grasp, we have now, finally, come to the end of the beginning of the End Time. In a grotesque parody of the deus ex machina that more decorously would have been appended to one of the preceding three productions, technology chooses this moment to rear its ugly monitor. Having, in Something Stereophonic Unsettles the Breeze, been escorted through the three metallic periods of the physical anthropologists, we enter the Age of Silicon, arriving, as per the epigraph from Wallace Stevens:

… at the end of the mind, 
Beyond the last thought 
The bird sings. Its feathers shine …

The last section of The Syndicate of Water & Light, entitled OS ∞, is introduced with five “virtual Haiku translated from the binary’. Reading, writing, grammar, language—it’s all crumbled down to this desiccated “poetic form”, which happens to be the most convenient thing for machinery to “write”. Because of its Zen mystique, this parched little koan of a genre makes no generically necessary demands on logic or sequence, which tend to cast the harshest light on nonsense. And it’s precisely those organisational qualities that the human brain still wields more handily than the “Artificial Intelligence”. One meat-based mind is connected to the next by means of relays that don’t require wires, Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.

What can be more solipsistic than a box of silicone slivers plugged into an outlet or clipped to an antenna? With all the grace of a drunken chorister in a satyr play, the Google Brain AI-Bot galumphs onto the scene, dancing as if nobody’s watching. This most asinine of all the high-hundreds of thousands of asinine “poets” the internet has spawned upon the ionosphere, informs us, in strings of zeroes and ones—

there is no one else in the world. 
there is no one else in sight …

Here’s another of his/her “works”, a prose-poem of sorts:

i went to the store to buy some groceries. i store to buy some groceries. i were to buy any groceries. horses are to buy any groceries. horses are to buy any animal. horses the favorite any animal. horses the favorite favorite animal. horses are my favorite animal…no. he said. “no,” he said. “no,” i said. “i know,” she said. “thank you,” she said. “come with me,” she said. “talk to me,” she said. “don’t worry about it,” she said.

Doubtless, the developing field of quantum computing will bring something a little more passable, more answerable, to bear upon the “infinite operating system of communication” as posited by Johan van Benthem, who, in Those Who Must Do It: the Agency of Language, ponders the question of what, if anything, in the AI realm, could make language and logic meet:

I hasten to add that powerful automata theoretic techniques exist by now in the area of computational logic for many languages, first order, higher order, with fixed points, and so on. These automata typically also deal with infinite streams of data that allow perpetual behavior (a crucial notion in studies of agency) that need not terminate at all. This may also be relevant to natural language. The usual emphasis on finite terminating linguistic tasks may lose us sight of the infinite operating system of communication.

With such a prologue, one might expect the utterances that immediately follow Google Brain’s contribution to The Syndicate of Water & Light to be imbued with something less than a communicative infinitude. After all, the ensuing series of poems are no longer suited to be named with something so human as words, nor Arabic, nor even Roman numerals with their I’s and V’s and X’s that recapitulate the Phoenicians’ alphabetised bills of lading, but merely series of accumulating dots and slashes.

But farces, by their nature, are jam-packed full of jarring surprises. Before our stunned eyeballs appear the very last things a cold bucket of inorganic nuts and bolts should be expected to produce. The superfast idiocy of the on-and-off switch suddenly sings Sweet Colors: some of the most beautiful, and infinitely communicative, pastorals.

in the fans of corn 
we see the faces 
of the farmers & their wives 
the buttercups plucked 
wild behind their ears 
& the deep umber 
of dirt in the folds 
of their summer dress

We come to suspect this natural beauty, however mysterious its provenance, is meant to ground us firmly as a rocket at the launch pad, balanced on its business-end. The accumulating dots and slashes must be nothing less than a countdown to lift-off, as the discourse gradually rises above the Arcadian, toward stellar stuff:

lunar waters 
weightless, let me drift 
into the clouds 
behind the shipwreck…

hanging mid air 
unknown paths 
opening wide…

voices open

drinking at the springs 
the stars lift their wings

It’s back to spaceship for us.

…no star 
Of wildest course but treads back his own steps

—says Wordsworth in The Prelude, anticipating Christof Koch’s contemporary version of the age-old panpsychism, where stars self-consciously will their orbs to flatulate jets of energy in a single direction, with the aim of propelling themselves to more advantageous positions within their galaxies. Though by exponential magnitudes “smaller-minded” than the merest microbe (whose nucleus, in turn, makes a dolt out of the cleverest Pentium chip ever cobbled together by animal cell-based fingers), these are the very self-willed celestial bodies that Dante “rebeholds” at the end that other spaceward journey, as he emerges from the Inferno—the last line of which also closes off this book, and this tetralogy—except for the Epilogue.

The Parthian shot comes from the man who, in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, brought the theretofore-intuitive science of rocketry into the calculable light of consciousness. Newton, usually, in contemporary poetry, appears in his alchemical goggles and apron. But here, for once, he’s wearing his physicist’s gown, releasing a “Little Bird Called Rocket”, accompanied by an epigraph about such a creature, gleaned from the Deverni Papyrus, Europe’s oldest example of that most glorious of emphatically non-binary systems, the highest evidence of the planetary tenure of man-not-machine, our greatest invention, surpassing AI by light years—the alphabet.

The recapitulatory rocket ride begins with Ignition:

If science were raised 
from the dead,

or perhaps, 
never dead at all— 
more a loop

returning to its beginning before 
it ever ended….

The next phase in rocketry is the Burnout:

Could it be that somewhere in the past 
there was a soul who knew 
what In the Beginning intimated?

And that someone terrestrial, 
but peculiarly cosmic—
with the imagination 
of an astrological power

found his armature of fingers,

counting those supernatural presences 
that plunged directly

into the midst of things?

The third phase comprises Coasting… “from the sidereal to the synodic”. And the entire parabola is consummated by Apogee, which provides A reason for living.

…what was once magic became mathematics…

Listening to the tuning of the sky, 
the riddle, 
a secret that could be unlocked 
by applying thought to evidence—

In the Cyclops of Euripides, the only satyr play that has come down to us intact, the eponymous oaf gets so drunk that he hallucinates the sagging shapes of senescent Silenus (Socrates’ unsightly Doppelgänger) transmogrifying into the alluring lineaments of Ganymede, whom he proceeds directly to drag into his cave for the expected upper- and lower-digestive purposes. Poets are hardly threatened by a cannibalistic Polyphemus; but AI, no less uncouth and disgusting, is already chewing on them in its titanium cavern.

But the story does not end there. As in the original epic, Odysseus manages to escape, reship and continue his adventure. Marc Vincenz permits us to do the same. He magnanimously restores us to our own sea-crossing vehicle, which is composed not of boards but of little marks that can be inked on pulped boards.

The befuddling prospect of quantum computing having been left behind us—or, rather, above us, from our re-grounded point of view—we return, on the last page of this tetralogy, to our analogue home, as legislated by Newton, where “secrets can be unlocked by applying thought to evidence”. Having ignited, burned out, coasted and ridden the apogee, we undergo recovery. And our welcome is sung to the accompaniment of “secret thoughts” from the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, written, with a pen, by one of the giants whose shoulders the aforementioned classical mechanic stood upon, Galileo:

what sublimity of mind was that in him, that imagined to himself to find out a way to communicate his most secret thoughts to any other person, though very far distant from him either in time or place, speaking with those that are in the Indies, speaking to those who are not yet born, nor shall be this thousand, or ten thousand years? And with how much facility? but by the various collection of twenty-four little letters upon a paper? Let this be the Seal of all the admirable inventions of man…

Vincenz is innately political and socio-critical, deeply philosophical and a razor-sharp observer of the environment and its dilapidation in “nimble-fingered minds”. He roots around deep into history in order to re-shuffle his (our) thoughts, in order to try to cast a light upon the twists and turns which have led us to this tipping point. Not only are there a multitude of voices and stages playing here all at once, but also an incalculable number of parallel stories, dozens of what-ifs and little nuggets of hope scattered along the way.

Where Unspeakable Desires explores the creation of art and its attempts to access the meaning of beauty, the legitimacy of the artist as explorer of the small ecosystems of the mind, Something Stereophonic Unsettles the Breeze taps into a history of human imagination and the evolution of a species that is often unaware of the damage it has inflicted, but also the artificial barriers it has wedged between the natural world and itself.

Becoming the Sound of Bees, the first in this tetralogy, give us access to this specific narrative through the lens of an everyman, Ivan, that ragged beachcomber who attempts to find re-newed meaning in his cracking world.  His tactics include everything from ritual, rite, worship, transcendental meditation and self-distraction, as he dips into the minds of great thinkers of the past, hoping to find both redemption and resolution. As he struggles trying to find meaning, screaming himself ocean-blue in the face, following a zigzagging bird to the ends of the earth, eventually, the apian drone of the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation settles in his head, and he moves on, once again to re-vision or re-envision a world of multiple senses. 

And here is where the newest of these books, the farce that rounds off the three great tragedies, and picks up the yarn again. Remember how in The Syndicate of Water & Light, we commence by being unsure whether we perceive reality by voicing it or whether reality comes into focus when we document it.  Are we aware that we are unaware? Here in The Syndicate, unlike the other three books, there is no single motley protagonist to lead the way. Instead, we pursue the ragged threads of knowledge where the “small mind traverses” hand-held by animal instinct rather than human reason. What we are seeking here is the “Othermind”.

In Syndicate, the travails finally take an Attic turn, moving at least figuratively through Dante’s classical infernos—stepping through the fire to the other side to a complete freedom of meditative contemplation of everything natural. Why is the comedy divine? Why even is it a comedy? Perhaps because only laughter can “settle the breeze”. And “syndicate”, why a “Syndicate of Water and Light?” Because as with the sounds of bees, water and light are innumerable, uncountable, and yet have a price on their “heads” in this corporate, human world we have mythologised inside our minds. As we walk through this last long journey, descending once again—as mankind has done in all great sagas and documented history—deep into the Underworld, we collect evidence, collect omniscience in an attempt to re-evaluate what lies on the outside, what lies ahead. We tread the all-consuming flames, scale the crumbling mountain chains, fjord the rivers of molten lead, until—strangely, aided by an artificial intelligence, we stumble once again, on the exit sign. When we emerge, the world seems that much more pastoral, that much more rich in its blind simplicity—or, is the AI just giving us something we want to believe?

Do we have to input all of human history to find the definitive algorithm? Is Vincenz suggesting that only the computer can help us find a way out? And—isn’t it strange the way we come to fear the potential of everything we create? Yes, the human mind appears to be capable of making anything, even an “Othermind”. Surely, Vincenz postulates, it is all perception, all translation—we only possess a crude symbolism, a semblance of reality in all proportions. And thus the answer may only reveal a smattering of the sum, not a constituent of all its parts.

What a journey we have made with Vincenz. Has he written, or shot himself out of the proverbial canon with his last farce? If we take the first line in Becoming the Sound of Bees, the epigraph by Louis Pasteur, and the last quoted line of The Syndicate of Water & Light, we get the following:

“Life is the germ,” says Pasteur.
“These are secret thoughts,” says Galileo.

How can we talk our way out of that one? We should probably ask the dead.


Tom Bradley

Tom Bradley has published twenty-five volumes of poetry fiction, essays and screenplays with houses in the USA, England, Canada and Japan. Various of his novels have been nominated for the Editor’s Book Award, the New York University Bobst Prize, and the AWP Series. 3:AM Magazine gave him the Nonfiction Book of the Year Award in 2007 and 2009, and one of his latest graphic novels is excerpted in last year’s &Now Award Anthology.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 26th, 2017.