This Wasted Land: and Its Chymical Illuminations, by Marc Vincenz (annotated by Tom Bradley). New Orleans, Louisiana: Lavender Ink, April 2015. 242 pages. $19.00, paper.
“And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at the
And fishermen hold flowers”
Desolation Row ~ Bob Dylan 1965
This Wasted Land is a ponderous tome indeed. I say that because it truly caused me to ponder, and I haven’t stopped pondering since I read the 902-line poem for the first time. In this age of attention deficit sound bites, ad-driven Internet blogger journalism, text messaging, instant messaging, tweeting, and “literature” as amuse-bouche single, bite-sized hors d’œuvres, here is one of the books that cannot be lightly skimmed or accessed by a quick read. It requires and deserves attention, cross-referencing, rereading, and as I said, pondering. It is copiously annotated with over three hundred entries by Tom Bradley and includes a twenty-three-page bibliography, a comprehensive index, and one of the most outrageous and confounding afterwords I’ve ever read by one Siegfried Tolliot, whose very existence is in question, but I don’t want to spoil the fun by saying too much about him now. I will say this, however. This Wasted Land is a masterpiece collaboration between Marc Vincenz and Tom Bradley.
A trenchant shot across Tom Bradley’s bow from the mysterious Siegfried Tolliot:
I suspect such peccadillos are not all that have kept him out from behind the professional podium. Displaying what can only be described as flippant disregard for intellectual rigor, Bradley has sunk alongside T. S. Eliot into “remarkable expositions of bogus scholarship.” He indulges in deliberate non-sequitur, which he no doubt dignifies as “impressionistic analysis.”
And some sardonic scholarship from Tom Bradley regarding Siegfried Tolliot:
Tolliot showed up in the “schizy ward” on the rounded heels of the author of Howl after the latter had orally primed old native Idahoan … the priapic eunuch put himself into position to lend Ezra Pound a carton of Kool mentholated cigarettes …
The book is a multilayered opus of brilliant prose, lyrical poetry, erudite scholarship, high culture, low culture, acerbic wit, droll humor, high parody and satirical exchanges between the author, the annotator, and the mysterious Siegfried Tolliot. This Wasted Land is a hybrid of ekphrastic parody, tribute and scholarly research. To be honest, my initial encounter with the book left me confused and befuddled. In fact, I wasn’t sure what was a put-on and what was actually serious. There are mysterious passages in German and French and a dizzying array of far-reaching annotations that include links to the Rosicrucians, the First Golden Age, alchemy, the occult, magick, the Annunaki, the Nephilim, and enough other esoteric references for a PhD dissertation. There’s even a disambiguation of the musician Manfred Mann and his classic hit from the sixties British Invasion, “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy.” The old country song by Skeeter Davis, “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know,” came to mind as I remembered so many historical references that had been relegated to the dustbin of my own liberal arts education. If you are willing to dive headfirst into this grand literary smorgasbord and pay close attention, you will emerge with an updated education in classical humanities. Here is an example of some of Vincenz’s gorgeous lyrical poetry:
blue heaven begins to hum a far less wretched tune
of rain and chymical sorcery, coercing tubers and roots
to squirm within sallow layers—and serpents twisting
beyond the line of sight; thawing toads seek beguiling light,
yes, even millipedes tapping into steady locomotion.
In order to understand a parody, it is necessary to understand the actual subject of the parody and context of the satire. This sent me back to revisit T. S. Eliot’s actual poem (“The Waste Land”) and the role that Ezra Pound played in co-creating the work with his editing, notes, corrections, and annotations. As important as Eliot and Pound were to modern literature, I was thoroughly dismayed by their politics, homophobia, and anti-Semitism and found it hard to separate their personal viewpoints from their art. But it did help lead me to a greater understanding of the references in This Wasted Land.
Vincenz’s poem closely follows the actual structure of “The Waste Land,” and Bradley plays Pound to Vincenz’s Eliot. The work closely parallels things that Eliot (and Pound) did with blending language by interjecting French and German passages, writing (“dead”) languages of ancient Greek and Latin and the concept of poetry as spoken word and song.
It’s important to note that this is not madcap comedy. It’s sophisticated and nuanced parody; but wrapped beneath this cloak of parody is a very real work of art. This Wasted Land is a virtuosic display of language and historical context. It is a work that is unique and totally new while still honoring the lineage from which it comes. This Wasted Land is a work about alchemy as a transformative agent and the allegorical journey to find the meaning of existence. It invokes James Joyce’s (and Joseph Campbell’s) monomyth, the hero’s journey and the classic archetypes of ancient myth: Ulysses, Perseus, Heracles, Achilles, Odysseus, Orpheus. It is also about the pursuit of our shadow selves and the realization that we are the ones that we have been waiting for.
I was reminded of the critical roles played by Eliot and Pound as modernists charged with pushing the wheels of culture forward and one of Pound’s most famous exhortations: “Make it new.” Vincenz and Bradley certainly have taken that to heart and succeeded in doing that by using “The Waste Land” as a springboard for This Wasted Land. In fact, they’re using it as a trampoline for their dazzling literary acrobatics. While Eliot’s poem ends with the Sanskrit prayer invocation “Shantih shantih shantih” (“Peace, peace, peace”), Vincenz references Eliot’s notes from “The Waste Land” in the final passage and then ends his poem with: “Kanti! O blessed one. Kanti! Cuckoo!” (“Patience, forbearance, forgiveness”), something we would all do well to remember.
Michael Gillan Maxwell writes short fiction, poetry, reviews of books and music, songs, essays, lists, recipes, and irate letters to his legislators. His work has been featured in a number of online and print journals and anthologies. He served as associate flash fiction editor for JMWW quarterly journal and is currently editor of MadHat’s Drive-By Book Reviews. He is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Part-Time Shaman: An Instructional Manual for Beginners. More information can be found at his website, Your Own Backyard: michaelgillanmaxwell.com.