Monday, March 31, 2008



Prau by Jean Vengua
(Meritage Press, St. Helena & San Francisco, 2007)

It occurs to me to say: read the book; to direct those of you who want commentary to Tom Beckett’s “Notes on Jean Vengua’s Prau” at Slim Windows, and to his interview with Jean in E-X-C-H-A-N-G-E-V-A-L-U-E-S: The First XI Interviews (Otoliths, 2007) (an indispensable volume, by the way, as is its followup); and to sign off.

That’s tempting. Tom’s commentary is really good. But. Or perhaps I should write: and.

On 8 December 07 I was in Berkeley, and heard Jean read at East Wind Books, and now I can’t read Prau without hearing, no, feeling, her voice, no, her presence. I don’t want to read Prau without that presence. Without that calm. Very steady. Very steady. This is a passionate book written by one who, in her poetry at least, seems equal to what comes.

(Jean, if you’re reading, I’m sure it all feels different in “real life”. But. And.)

I don’t know how important it is to have heard that voice before reading. I liked the book before I heard her read. I thought it was very good. But it’s a different book now. I read it much more slowly, quietly … The main reason I’m writing this is to share what I experienced and how it affects my reading. My advice (Yogi Bhajan once told me: never give advice): take your time with these poems. As Eric Burdon assured everyone in “San Fransiscan Nights”, “It will be worth it.”

Prau is divided into four sections, the titles of which suggest a journey, an odyssey, perhaps without an Ithaca: “Momentum”, “Displacements/In Place”, Ghost Vessels”, “Rowing/Breathing”. Though “life is a journey” is a commonplace, it’s never been truer nor has it ever connoted more intensity of experience than in this, the Age of Dislocation.

Yes, every age is an age of dislocation. And. But.

According to one authoritative source, “Between 2000 and 2005, 13.1 million persons migrated from developing to developed regions.” (Tak Wong, Dept. of Political Science, UC Riverside). How many migrated from one part of the “developed” world to another? How many people migrated from one part of the developing world to another? Is anybody counting? At best, life must have become strange for all of them …

And this doesn’t touch on the number of “internally displaced persons” (IDPs). As defined by the United Nations,
internally displaced persons are persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.

According to “Internal Displacement: Global Overview of Trends and Developments in 2006” (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), April 2007, as found at Wikipedia), “At the end of 2006 estimates of the world IDP population rose to 24.5 million in some 52 countries.”

We’re talking about a lot of people. So is Jean. (Jerry Jeff Walker: “When I remember your life / I remember mine”). And for all of whom “things” must have become very strange … (I’ve set myself the oulipean constraint of talking about this without using the words pain and suffering …)

Commonplace. Common. Place. Let’s take a closer look at the (rhetorical and actual) notion of place in what I am calling here The Age of Dislocation (I could, as could any of you, adduce any number of reasons why we experience dislocation these days, even if we still live in the home that’s been in the family for x generations). I’m going to quote at some length from Grant Boswell, “Non-Places and the Enfeeblement of Rhetoric in Supermodernity”, Enculturation, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring 1997 (see the original for notes, etc.).
Not only is the concept of place very prominent in rhetoric, it is central to Western discourse generally. … space is the key concept of Western philosophical discourse: “Since the time of its Mediterranean inception, Western philosophy has essentially presented itself as a philosophy of the center. This notion, questioned in various degrees by European thinkers from Hegel to Derrida … concerns itself most profoundly with the concept of spatiality” … In order for something to be recognized as knowable, it has to make its way from periphery to center … and thus what is knowable and therefore meaningful has its place: “meaning is understood in terms of knowing the place of things, of objects and entities, in the given order of the cosmos”.

Think what this must mean for immigrants and IDPs, etc. … and then read Jean’s “This Isn’t Kansas”:
… and the sky is too thin and there
is no tether, no reality. I mean, no flattering munchkin

and, particularly, her “Momentum”, which opens with
Gustav Mahler died in 1911. He saw himself as an outsider.

and which ends (and here I do quote Tom B) with a “skin prickling denouement in which Vengua’s father witnesses, from the rail of a ship, a nuclear explosion on a coral atoll.” Clearly, an event (in Badiou’s sense of the word), which has made us all at least a little bit less at home.

Back to Grant Boswell:
… the relation of place to discourse is one of familiarity and knowledge; one knows and therefore can speak about what is familiar in the place one occupies. This relation is called “rhetorical territory” by Descombes. “Where is the character at home? . . . The character is at home when he is at ease in the rhetoric of the people with whom he shares life.” … Home is the familiar place from which one speaks to one's neighbors about what they share in common because they occupy common places. The question then becomes what happens to discourse when the concept of place as the familiar place one knows and lives in changes?

These poems are one answer. This is the last line of “The Aching Vicinities”:
leuchtendes grun a la pagode lightfast

Is this an example of “supermodernity”? Boswell:
… supermodernity accelerates the transformation of space. Virilio argues that the acceleration of history actually makes possible the transformation of space in what he calls the “shrinking effect” … by making remote distances and places accessible to us by travel or by electronic media, supermodernity compresses space, changing the scale of things such that the world can fit into one's vacation or living room. Thus supermodernity works on the principle of “spatial overabundance” in which the unfamiliarity and expanse of space is compressed into the familiarity and knowability of place. This compression results in excessive possibilities for assimilating spatial overabundance as knowledge within one's home, one's rhetorical territory, because the home becomes the focal point into which knowledge from all over the world is funneled.

Or is this an example of its opposite? Even if we live under conditions of supermodernity that doesn’t mean we’re “supermodern”. If we became postmodern because we never became modern (Bruno Latour) and posthuman because we never became human (Donna Haraway), then perhaps a state of supermodernity and the “shrinking effect” explains why so many of us are on antianxiety meds and antidepressants …

It’s not that every poem is “about” diaspora and dislocation. Not at all. It’s just that life is lived under that sign. Jean does run her own riff on the shrinking effect, I think, by seeing the world in a grain of sand and in the pea under her mattress, and by finding the significance of the world via her senses (which include memory and intellection). Everything counts (Wolfgang Tillmans: “If one thing matters, everything matters”). Here’s all of “This is Not to Explain”:
What did all that traveling mean, and why
can’t I remember? I remember. This is not
nostalgia. There was cool light misting
over the slough near Crescent City; I counted
red barns. There is a prison at Pelican Bay,
a town named Trinidad, a town named Samoa.
What does this have to do with you.
Now the snow crunches under my boots, now
sand and heat scrubs the skin on my heels
dry and bleeding. There were many deserts.
Please explain why. No; I’d forgotten:
there are no more explanations left.

There may be no explanations left. But what are explanations? Do we need them? Perhaps not, when “I am all yours, O”: this is the way “The Paper House” ends. And it must be remembered that “O”, besides being “a natural exclamation, expressive of sudden feeling”, can (and here does, I believe) also “[stand] before the subject in the vocative relation”, as in
O Muse, tell me the story

Of all these things, O Goddess, daughter of Zeus

Beginning wherever you wish

(not Jean’s words; remember, she lives in a world without munchkins). The key word here being “relation”. I DJ a little to show what I mean:
I am all yours, O
cool light misting over the slough

etc. and mix in a sample from “Wednesday, August 25, 2004”:
Once, on some opiate I confused
that street lamp for the full
moon. Tonight, stone sober,
I almost make the same mistake.

O street lamp, o moon …

And to think: I haven’t even begun to talk about the love poems yet …


John Bloomberg-Rissman's most recent publications are World Zero and No Sounds Of My Own Making. Work of his will soon appear in The Hay(na)ku Anthology, Vol. II. He is one of four collaborators on the recent hay(na)ku sequence "Four Skin Confessions", which has served as a seed project for a number of other collaborations also to be anthologized. His current project is called Autopoiesis, of which he has completed 100+ parts and though he expected it would be time to move on to something else when he put paid to no. 100, surprise! 2008 seems to be the year of the sonnet-shaped thing.


Tom Beckett said...

Prau really is an inexhaustible book, isn't it? I've read it twice now and am feeling like I've only scratched its surface.

Thanks, John, for this review.

EILEEN said...

Other views are offered by Leny M. Strobel in GR #10 at

and by Allen Gaborro in GR #10 at

EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by Brett Duchon in GR #11 at

EILEEN said...

Another view is offered by Jeff Harrison in GR #14 at