ALLEN GABORRO Reviews
Prau by Jean Vengua
(Meritage Press, St. Helena & San Francisco, 2007)
[First published in Philippine News, March 2008]
After reading her newest poetry book titled Prau, one comes to the realization that Jean Vengua is, figuratively speaking, a restive poet for she constantly shuttles between places and states of mind that exist and places and states of mind that are poetically-imagined. As one editor put it, Vengua is a “poet of linguistic and global migration.” Certainly many of her poems are disjointed, peripatetic, and malleable, making them appear on the surface to be artifacts of nebulous improvisation. But far from that, her works, both prose as well as verse, are suggestive of a host, indeed an embarrassment, of meanings and interpretations.
In Prau, the winner of the 2007 Filamore Tabios Sr. Prize, externally- and internally-directed ruminations carry the day. On the external front, Vengua incorporates persons and episodes from history, including Philippine history, and places both familiar and unfamiliar. Her interior voice is rooted in psychological, existential, and spiritual themes that convey a sense of ambiguity, of discontinuity, or better yet, of the polysemantic. Vengua attempts to probe these shadowy realms of meaning for a reason—she seeks creative refuge in this profoundly contemplative but protean universe of representation and interpretation.
Vengua’s “To the Photographers” piece is a philosophical expression of that universe. In this prosaic serving, Vengua alludes to the impermanence of time. She muses that “In the attempt to capture [time] one may lose face” and that “This is only natural because today’s face is not yesterday’s.” Time is the great dynamic variant for Vengua who believes that “all things travel, have a certain momentum.” Therefore, “some [things] topple over onto others in the process; the future topples over into the past.”
Vengua’s conception of time’s ephemeral nature is couched in contingent facilities of language. True to form, Vengua’s poetry can be enigmatic and disorienting. But with some patience, it is also possible for the reader to validate that her texts can be indicative, at times allegorical, whether by design or not, as is arguably the case in “The Poetics of Geodetic Control” and in “The City and the Garden 2.” Vengua returns to the notion of time as a fickle phenomenon in the poem “Crows”. She writes that time “acts in accordance w/poetic justice.” Vengua goes on: “To act upon certain uncertain coordinates//That which we all learn from past events/That which happened tomorrow now is//A lost accord braying on Radio Free Radio.”
At the heart of Vengua’s works lies an exhilarating, arguably necessary, disposition towards what I would paradoxically call a foundationalism in anti-foundationalism. Her’s is a disposition that empowers the artist, the poet/writer in her case, as the unhindered executor of his or her creative abilities. Vengua refuses to be beholden to classical poetic or grammatical formulations or to rigid linguistic structures nor to anything of the kind. Of course, that school of thought depends on what interpretive credo is applied: where traditionalists and absolutists see chaos and incomprehension in Vengua’s pieces, those of a more open-minded persuasion will read into them a range of themes and significations.
Themes and significations are aplenty in Vengua’s prose composition “Momentum” which is principally situated in the context of the year 1911. This was the year when, as she informs us, the composer Gustav Mahler died, when the Nobel Prize was given to Marie Curie, and when the Chilean surrealist artist Roberto Matta was born. But Vengua reminds us that 1911 was also the year when the first Filipino laborers arrived in Alaska to work in the canneries and on fishing craft. On a darker note, it was also the year that the M-1911 Colt 45 pistol was crafted to, as the author writes, “to kill intransigent Filipino ‘Moros’ in Mindanao. Flips running amok.”
“Momentum” also emerges on a personal level for Vengua. In the piece, she tells us about her maternal grandfather who was a member of the so-called Buffalo Soldiers, the moniker given to African-American soldiers in the US Army during the Philippine-American War. Some of these soldiers, Vengua’s grandfather being one of them, would not only fight Filipinos, but go on to marry Filipina women. More a lover than a fighter, all her grandfather “wanted to do was play the clarinet and fall in love.”
“Prau” ends with a quotation from the Buddhist text “The Dhammapada”: “Empty this boat, O monk! When emptied, it will go lightly.” Mindful of how deeply rich and intriguing Vengua’s work is, the vessel of her poetic handiwork will go any way but lightly
Allen Gaborro is an art and book reviewer for the Philippine News weekly. He is also a freelance writer who has written historical, political, and cultural articles. Allen is a member of the Philippine American Writers' Association (PAWA) of Northern California. He is based in San Francisco, California.