WALKING THEORY by STEPHEN VINCENTEILEEN TABIOS Reviews
WALKING THEORY by Stephen Vincent
(Junction Press, New York, 2007)
After reading the first poem, I didn’t anticipate that I would become so charmed by this book. The first poem—certainly along with the title WALKING THEORY—suggests this collection is a series of poems related to a poet’s walks, which is fine, but I initially found it hard to care where he paced. Here is the first poem
Left house at 21st near Dolores, up 21st across Church up to Sanchez, on to a right on Noe, a short left on Liberty, met Andrew at his house, walk back up Noe, a right down 21st across Castro and up over Colllingwood and west down across to Diamond, a slight jog over to and west on up 21st, right and north on up to Douglass, left up Roma, west across Market pedestrian over pass on to Corbett, right down and north up Clayton to a left down Carmel to a left up Schrader to a right on Belgrave, west across Stanyan to dead end at Sutro Forest, the trail up west, slightly south back on to Clarendon down to Laguna Honda, flat north on to 7th, left on Kirkham, right on 8th, left on Judah, west gradually on down out past 43rd to touch the beach, cross back over to Fulton, take the McAllister bus east to Shrader, one block across to Hayes, turn east to Clayton, south across the Park Panhandle, across and east on Oak to Ashbury, south and up to Haight, east down to Divisadero, up and south to Lloyd, east down to Scott, one block up to Duboce, west up Castro, south to Castro to Market and up to Liberty, east up to Andrew’s house, further up the Liberty steps, slightly down to a right on Sanchez, south up to the 21st, and east, straight down across Church, and Chattanooga to my house near Dolores.
But, immediately, with the second, third, fourth…poems, Vincent fleshes out what occurs between the lines, the ruminations between his steps. The poems show that he walks as much through his mental landscape as San Francisco and other terrains…and I’m drawn in viz an effect that while, gentle, is compulsive. The second poem, “Elegy in Red,” starts
Grieve in the morningThe third poem, “Elegy’s Laundry” starts
Grieve in the afternoon.
Your mother. Your father.
Your friend. Your lover. The brother,
sister, son and daughter.
Unto the fourth day, unto the fifth,
upon the waters. Upon the night. Upon the day.
Angus nearby, near gone,
tender as the molted skin.
The royals are out,
wings lavender, blue and maroon.
Tight on the lower line,
sweat pants, tights, t-shirts & halters.
The royals are out,
The bridge to light.
The grooved roof.
The green-whorled plant
Wind, stroke, water.
A molting we will go,
A molting we will go,
Earth & Sea,
Flower & tree.
God is a set of trees.
In each of these poems, the beginnings are compelling—continuing that “Let’s just go” momentum (a line from the fourth poem “A Walk to Limantour Beach”). Would that be the “theory” part of WORKING THEORY?
Undoubtedly, what contributes to these poems’ forward-momentum is Vincent’s mastery of the line-break—I am encouraged to pause where he breaks and such deepens my consideration of the lines.
Fittingly, since these poems are in the Section titled Walking Elegy, the poems also are propelled by a voice very conscious of others’—thus, his own—mortality. The search for meaning is tinged with losses and anticipation of more losses. Here’s how the fifth poem starts:
Walk from home to 24th—coffee & scone—
to walk with
up 24th to Diamond to Romero cross
Market to Rooftop down Corbett,
up Clayton, up the Pemberton Steps
to Twin Peaks Drive, up steps to Tank Hill:
The canvas floats suspended,
down Twin Peaks
transparent, unveiled under barely lifted, thin gray fog,
Gay Pride weekend in the city
Don’t they know my father’s dead
and I am risen to look over the bay
over the city?
The above excerpt is also the last poem to the first of the two books’ section. The poem and section closes well and movingly with
The poet’s widow in a lemon top,
A little pigeon-toed,
wanders these hills variously,
smiles rhythmically at each passerby,
perpetually, it appears, wounded and alone.
I know the woman from long ago
but can’t bring myself to say hello.
Home to Sandy’s garden, open roses,
apricot, white and yellow,
the flowers I can never fully name.
Absence is presence,
father, gradually, an unfolding flame.
Section II is comprised of a long poem “Walking Theory.” Here we see that my earlier question of “Let’s just go” as the “theory” is simplistic. “Walking Theory” shares a multiplicity of theories, including but not limited to
1) Driven out to walk. No Kingdom, look closely. New Kingdom: looking.
2) “Walking is weaving. Feet, the pedals. Eye, the needle. Rhythm. Breath. Rhythm. Word. Image. Thought. Erase. Twine. Word. Image. Rhythm. Pedal. Twine. Eye. Pedal. Woven. Thought. Erase. Continue.
And the third part begins
Empathy is key. The landscape isn’t just interpreted for use in a poem. The terrain also is respected, and the poet’s eye acknowledges it, as it is, into poetry:
Morning Graffiti on the Trolley Causeway
Between Liberty and 20th:
Socialist Health Care
FUCK YOUR JOB
Don’t Hold Grudges
Indeed, after the above excerpt, I returned to the first poem of the book and with which I began this review—I feel a poignancy there now where, once, I felt indifference. I feel now the significance of the poem starting and ending with the same point: the poet’s Home. A metaphor, say, for how a person can go out into the world and search for something that’s always been within herself.
These poems heighten the reader’s keenness of observation. WALKING THEORY is one of those works that can shift the reader’s mindset to view the world in a different (hopefully more lucid) way. For me, my experience with walks can now be divided into two: before and after reading this book. And the thing with attentiveness is that you’ll often notice things you might miss before having witnessed how someone else can do it—walking, observation, rumination—so well.
And so this book evokes a walk I once took in San Francisco, a city I still don’t know that well so that I don’t remember the street. There was a used bookstore on that street and I entered. I walked through its bookshelves and among the volumes on them, then picked up a few to accompany me home.
Before the cash register, as I waited for the cashier to ring up my acquired publications, I noticed a lovely poem on a card (or small broadside) beneath the counter’s glass. I enjoyed reading the poem, and said so to the cashier, who, smiling, then identified himself as its author.
Later, since he said he’d welcome them, I sent him a couple of my poetry books. He would come to follow up with an e-mail requesting to read some of my poems on some radio show (whose territory, I think, covered Marin County). I never heard the radio broadcast, but I believe the poems were read with some collaborative mix involving jazz.
I didn’t think of this incident again until I read WALKING THEORY, because I remembered the name of the poet behind the cash register as soon as I saw his name in the book’s list of “Other Books by Stephen Vincent” facing the title page. The list includes “Five on the Western Edge, with Beau Beausoleil, Steve Brooks, Hilton Obenzinger, and Larry Felson (San Francisco: Momo’s Press, 1977)”.
Beau Beausoleil. Isn’t that a lovely name--how could I have forgotten it? Beau Beausoleil is the poet I encountered in that walk years ago. I didn’t know who he was and still don’t. But, now I know that Vincent, in some fashion, has kept company with this generous stranger. Which is to say, beyond my personal example, WALKING THEORY lifts terrain to the page, which reciprocates by bringing the reader back to the actual landscapes of the world. If a drawing, this book could be a gesture-laden enso. A glorious circling and circle.
Last but not least, WALKING THEORY leaves me ... so happy! Well, what a gift! And why not simply conclude as a “critical” response that a book leaves one happy? After all, Vincent’s “Walking Theory” also posits:
“In an odd country go intimate”
Eileen Tabios HEARTS wine, dogs and Thou. She can't do anything but shrug over the loudness of her Silences...