Meritage Press, 2007
Pinning Down the Escape Artist
Review by Lee Kottner
“Listen to catch with intimate hooks the drift / of King James or a coroner’s conversation / nurse learned syllables as seeded fluff to Velcro . . .” Jean Vengua tells us near the end of her new poetry collection, (italics)Prau,(/italics) winner of the Filamore Tabios, Sr. Memorial Poetry Prize. In a 2006 [interview] (http://willtoexchange.blogspot.com/2006/01/interview-with-jean-vengua.html), Vengua calls herself “an escape artist” when describing her poetics, and (italics)Prau,(/italics) named after an Indonesian sailboat, is all about being on the move. The book is divided into four sections: Momentum, Displacements/In Place, Ghost Vessels, and Rowing/Breathing. Despite all that movement, or in some cases, longing for movement, one thing anchors Vengua firmly, and that’s her language. Though her settings range from Mindinao to Monterey to Alaska, it’s the rich images of her poetics that give us a sense of the place her poems come from.
That place is the poet’s body, its memories and constituent parts, its own place in the geography of the world. In “Night Diary,” she tells us “In the night the body, the meat diary, remembers certain conversations.” Vengua has gone about recording them. She lets us know what we’re in for in the opening poem, “This Isn’t Kansas,” informing us “there is no more new. a lot of / nakedness around here lately, though. it shuffles, goes / everyday under the radar, shifts sightlines . . .” and when she’s done, nothing is quite the same because our own sightlines have shifted to include the landscapes of emotion and migration.
In her bio, Vengua says that most of these poems were written “online, afloat on the sea of pixels.” She has had several experimental poetics blogs in the past and her poems have that flavor of stream-of-consciousness that steals over us so easily when staring into the void of the internet, speaking through our fingers. There’s an intimacy to her poems that late-night online chat room conversations have, when it feels safe to say anything. As Vengua says in “Night Stammers,” “Syntax breaks up. Ice breaks. If you can just weather a night like this huddled with your own voice.” You sign off and realize it’s 4 a.m. and you’ve told a complete stranger everything about your affair with a co-worker.
Vengua’s poems are not only intimate but playful as well, in both form and content. “Glowrius “ is ten words long and takes up the whole page with outsized, all-capped, phonetically spelled, oddly broken, bracketed words in deepest black and pale gray that almost seem to glow like green pixels on a black screen. Often, she breaks words in half without hyphens, merely dropping them to the next line to discombobulate her readers, muddle the meaning, and make us rear back and reread. There’s something almost Dada-like in her visual poetry, but the content matters too. In “Debit” she uses the convention of strikeout to “erase” without erasing the first half the poem. Reading through the struck-out words, you realize they were two separate poems that, together, make a third.
That’s an apt description of this collection itself; there’s so much going on in it, both parts and whole. Time slips away, people slip away, homelands change, new places become home. The boat goes out with travelers on the tide and comes back richly loaded with experience and memory laid out in rich language.