Friday, January 30, 2009

A Review of Prau by Jean Vengua (Meritage Press, 2007,

Winner of the The Filamore Tabios, Sr. Memorial Poetry prize, for which Filipino poets from around the world are eligible, Jean Vengua’s Prau is a fascinating journey in the often stormy seas of nontraditional poetry. It takes as its overarching theme images of boats and boating, bracketing its interior selection of poems with a beginning quote by Herman Melville and an ending quote from The Dhammapada. The quotes served, for me, a navigational purpose, functioning as the start and end points on a map or as the buoys that mark a channel or inlet, calling to mind the mnemonic device of “Red, Right, Return” that I learned as a teenager living near the ocean and learning to sail.

Such anchors, if you will, are an essential part of any nontraditional writing, as they clue the reader to the fact that the author is not working randomly, or haphazardly, just putting words, phrases, and constructs on the page, but that the collection holds in important, vital ways.

In reading Prau, I often thought of poets such as Mark Sonnenfeld, Vernon Frazer, and Ric Carfagna. Their works—whether they be fractal, language poetry, vispo, or other experimental/nontraditional forms—have thematic, stylistic, and structural coherence. There is order in the presentation, the language, and the thought, no matter how random and stream of consciousness it all may seem at first glance.

As Sonnenfeld often says, in defense of his work (and it’s unfortunate that he even has to), “If you change or move a single word, the whole structure falls apart.”

I thought of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings as well, and how he famously said, "I don't use the accident. I deny the accident."

Poetry such as that offered in Prau highlights, for me, the strengths of Stream of Consciousness writing. Far from just “verbal vomit,” as some critics and editors suggest, I believe that S of C writing works with the same binding principles as our Dreams—within the turbulent sea, the crucial images and symbols have a buoyancy that makes them easily discernible.

To keep with the boating theme of Prau, the poems offered work like a seining net—though they have gaps and holes, there is a well-woven structure that allows much to flow.

Prau begs multiple reads—it is my sense that depending on one’s mood, the time of day, the season of the year, what is buoyant and what flows through the poetic net will morph and change. This in and of itself makes this volume notable and easy to recommend.

I’d like to leave the reader with a selection of lines from Prau that further articulate what I’ve chosen to focus upon in this short review:
“…bad content can penetrate deeply into the wandering habits of the writer, could upset the sacredness of the journey” (“Migration Busting,” p. 20)

“if only/to communicate/to you my inability/to communicate/without interruptions/in sense, in flow … how I stutter/between facades” (“Abilidad,” p. 67)

“in/the sentence/there is breathing … beauty/depends upon/a broken sentence” (“Loophole,” p. 71)

The reader will notice that “Loophole” consists of tercets of one, two, and three words, a form called “hay(na)ku” developed by Eileen Tabios and the focus of The First Hay(na)ku Anthology, which Jean Vengua co-edited. It is an efficient, intriguing form with its roots in the tercet of the haiku.

“I barely know what I’m writing; it’s true. … Some letters, something is missing, and we know it.” (“The Problems (2),” p. 82)

Vengua’s style and technique are further capsulated in the poem “The Conditions” (p. 85).

Friday, January 2, 2009

“Poetic Meditation”: A Review of Eileen Tabios’ Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole (Marsh Hawk Press,, 2002)

Eileen Tabios is proof that one need not be locked into either a right- or left-brained set of experiences over the course of one’s life.

With an MBA from NYU and an undergraduate degree in political science, she had a successful career in finance before shifting her attention to poetry. Her list of publications and awards is impressive (including the Philippines’ Manila Critics Circle National Book Award for Poetry). She is an editor as well as a writer, and since 2001 has been integrating mixed-media and performance aspects into her work. She is also the founder of Meritage Press.

Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole is a subtle cinematography of words. It is a meditative and gentle read, drawing on the deeply experiential and ultra-personal, framed by a referential triumvirate—poetry, painting, and place.

This book of what might be termed “prose poems” is composed of three sections: My Greece, Returning the Borrowed Tongue, and Triptych for Anne Truitt.

The collection opens with four quotes as it journeys from Book Opening, to section opening, to the first poem. Throughout its 124 pages the book has quotes by an impressive array of writers, painters, philosophers, and other artists. Eileen is obviously well read and well traveled, these “passive” and “active” aspects of her life adding a richness to her poetry that only comes from a life fully lived.

Much of the writing considers painting as a metaphor (and literal act) for vision, organization, and inspiration. Color is prevalent (and at times wonderfully explicit, as in the alphabetical list in “Muse Poem”), as well as texture, setting, technique, and mood.

She quotes several unnamed artists and poets within the works, such as this line from “Abandoning Misery” (p. 97): “I wanted passion—I got it, and its punishment, too. … I got all the violence that accompanies desire.”

Her own observations are just as striking: “It is so difficult to find innocence in accomplished men. There is always something to be paid” (“Jade,” p. 23) or “I am addicted to what I do not know” (“Illusions through the Grid,” p. 113).

Many of the poems have no end punctuation, leaving the thought, the situation, the moment unfinished, as they so often are.

“The Color of a Scratch in Metal” and “The Fairy Child’s Prayer” are so beautiful, one could read them in meditation over and over, losing all sense of time and place and gaining new perspectives as doors are thrown wide. “Approximations” is another piece that is nearly perfect in its tone and images, while “Respect” reads like found letters, the ones blown upon the beach from some post-summer tourist-town street, or the ones that protrude invitingly from cans of garbage struck by streetlight that you pass after closing the bar.

There are character studies such as “The Investment Banker” and “The Receptionist” that turn the light on the seemingly mundane to look at the unique beyond the filmic caricature.

“My Saison between Baudelaire and Morrison” is a wonderful concoction of the literary flavors of the two writers of the title, with the sprinkled spice of Rimbaud and Blake.

The book has a last section entitled “Triptych for Anne Truitt.” A triptych (according to Wikipedia) is “a work of art (usually a panel painting) which is divided into three sections, or three carved panels which are hinged together and folded.” It is often altar art and has its roots in early Christian religious painting. Anne Truitt was a well-known and celebrated artist who died in 2004, two years after the book was published.

Within the first triptych is perhaps a key to the larger themes of the book: “Once, I drove through a forest in New Hampshire and saw a painting by Cezanne as I made a left turn. But, so quickly did I leave it behind…” (p. 111).

In an age of electronic and “disposable art,” where surfing the ‘Net is akin to flipping endlessly through cable TV channels in search of reconnection in an atmosphere of isolation (calling to mind Robert Pirsig’s line from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that looking at nature through the car window is just more TV…), the meditative works in Reproductions of the Empty Flagpole defy the reader to simply skim and move on. The hooks are finely barbed and grab you in the deepest places (the Triptych alone contains too many to list).

The book closes with a very helpful “Selected Notes to Poems” section and a substantial list of acknowledgments. The length and breadth of the acknowledgments comes as no surprise given what I have to come to know of Eileen Tabios during our handful of e-mails: There are few writers out there as genuinely excited about the work and as generous as Eileen—her spirit radiates throughout her poetry and no doubt through her life. A visit to her blog ( is highly recommended.

The cover photo of this book is a striking image of a rose fallen onto a thorn called “Rose and Thorn” by Cal Strobel.

I look forward to reviewing several more titles from Eileen in the coming months, as well as a selection of books from Meritage Press.