Reviewed by Thaddeus Rutkowski
Becoming the Sound of Bees
I read this collection of poems in fits and starts, mostly while I rode the subway to and from my class. I took in every word, however, and I appreciated Vincenz’s large, clear-eyed, often profound vision of the world.
One of the poems, “Amelia’s Orange Grove,” kept bringing me back. This poem is not typical of the book, in that it is about a romance, or a romance almost gone wrong. It is about a relationship between a man named Juan and a woman named Amelia. There is love between them, but there is also distrust, and probably infidelity. The poem begins:
Juan doesn’t dare ask, but knows Amelia has others—
in dark cities, in the dust of autumn, pictures her
winding down dwindling alleys where windows
slam shut at noon; sometimes he smells them
emerging from Amelia’s pores at night
when she sleeps and he turns, watching streetlight
flickering forgiving forgetting
The character Juan is suspicious of Amelia; he imagines her in alleys “in dark cities” (cities without light, or cities of dark people?) and he can smell other presumed partners emanating from her skin. And yet, there is a sense that this couple will stay together, because there is an element of “forgiving” and “forgetting.” There is also the suggestion that Amelia’s wanderings are only in Juan’s mind, because he doesn’t have the nerve to ask her about them, and thus he has no confirmation.
In the middle of the poem, Juan looks up at the sky and tries to identify constellations (he tries “to remember Sagittarius from Capricorn, searching for the virgin and the sky’s dangling umbilical cord”). It is not just an astronomical exercise, because he seeks the stars that symbolize purity and birth—qualities prized by many, in a wife. In this way the poet connects the universe with our own experience of life—something he does repeatedly and well throughout the book.
At the end of this poem, Amelia seems to promise a life for herself and her partner, in a house next to an orange grove, and Juan tastes the fruit of that grove as he eats an orange with the “skin, flesh, pips” and “swallows it all.” It is as if he is consuming the sweetness, bitterness—and seediness—of a relationship all at once.
In a later poem, “Fossil,” the personal world meets the natural world again as the speaker (presumably the poet) walks along a beach with a man named Ivan (presumably a friend). The poem begins:
He comes alive again & calls them
ancient crabs & I don’t correct him
though I know they’re trilobites,
he reaches down and feels their smooth
ossified shells, running his finger
along their ridges & appendages,
their sharp protrusions, moves his
thumb across their compound eyes.
I tell him, like us they could see
in stereo, complex eyes that caught
light into far distances, the first
complex eyes on our planet
Here, the poet makes a connection between the present and the distance past—hundreds of millions of years ago. He points to a similarity between our eyes and “their” eyes, suggesting that just as we see across eons, these ancient creatures could see “light into far distances.” And in the part of the poem not quoted here, there is another hint of romance as Ivan “looks sad again like when he thinks of Tatjana and the creatures vanish.” It is as if a loved one is going the way of extinction, as the trilobites did.
Becoming the Sound of Bees is filled with references to the natural, the ageless and the elemental. The cover art shows beekeepers, both male and female, dancing next to movable comb hives in an apiary, smoke jars in hand. Perhaps the message is that if we listen hard enough, that droning, buzzing sound will draw us back into something more primal, more durable, than what we experience every day.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. All three books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.