Wednesday, August 23, 2006



The Aching Vicinities by Jean Vengua
(An Otoliths Chapbook first published in Otoliths, issue one, part one, Southern Autumn, 2006, Ed. Mark Young, Available here.)

A chapbook should function as a window into the poetics constructed by a singular voice. Unlike larger or more “formal” poetry collections, a chapbook is understood as a special delivery, an advance selection of a larger work-in-progress that should, however, offer the coherence of a particular poetics, the foundations, through fragments, of a specific manner of seeing and transforming the world through the mediation of the poetic performance. A chapbook should open up, with crack and thunder, the regularity of everyday discourse with a distinct proposal that would allow the reader to say, “This is this poet’s voice at this particular moment”.

Jean Vengua offers with The Aching Vicinities a sample of a powerful corpus of formally and tonally divergent works that nevertheless share a common “foundation”. This goes beyond the construction of a lyrical persona or the identification of a grammatical subject or a speaking agent. Instead, the common ground that holds Vengua’s edifice (or collection of edifications or buildings; a neighborhood perhaps) is a plurality of enunciation resources, different poetic forms guided by various singular and plural, personal and impersonal subjects. This heterogeneous, polymorphous voice builds, indeed, a poetic heteroglossia that nevertheless shapes a common figure of the world as seen through the eyes of a poet.

The world that Vengua creates is not easily definable, though. Her chapbook offers a mere glimpse, a blurry image of what her poetics seem to wish for: grasping a sensation, stopping, with sharp needles, the hectic wings of a multicolored flying insect, detecting the surrounding areas, the aura of unstoppable happenings, the aching experience of writing life and the experiencing of life by writing. This is to say that her poetics is not a question of pure mimesis. Instead, her voices’ utterances do not refer to a specific, easily definable extra-textual referent. In other words, it is hard to say what Vengua’s voices are talking about, because her poems here do not belong to her as an empirical subject but to a diverse series of strategies that are independent as textual artifacts.

The Aching Vicinities is composed of 18 poems in different forms, including poetic prose, hay(na)ku and couplet sequences. The first poem, “Foundation”, sets the construction up, moves the following pieces forward and establishes the chapbook’s discourse:

no holds

no handles

no home

no bricks

nor this

There is a breath here, the alliteration of the “h” inspiring sound that contrasts with the dry -- yet cold -- sound of the fourth line, which in turn builds up the conclusion of the last line, mixing the sounds of the “r” and the “h”. There is no explicit grammatical subject here; the repetition evokes an impersonal prayer, the deletion of the abandoned, hopeless subject. The foundation of the whole chapbook lies here: an acknowledgment of hopelessness, the expression, if you will, of the transcendental homelessness expressed by writing. There is nothing to hold to here, Vengua seems to say, nothing but this, and not even this, that is here without being something concrete. This sensation of abandonment, the dialectics between writer and body, between voice and organs, pen or keyboard and fingers, skin and veins and organs, will be set in motion by this tangential approach to the vicinities of pain.

Through the 18 poems included in this chapbook, Vengua approaches the question of the multiple, always-shifting writing being. One and the other and never one at the same time, the voices that inhabit The Aching Vicinities are abandoned to themselves, becoming them and the other, the reader (“I am you”, the voice of “On Work” says), alone and naked, free but possessed by responsibilities, embarrassed and embarazado/as (pregnant) with nothingness and darkness.

In “The Problems”, a prose poem in three numbered paragraphs, the impersonal voice of the imaginary essay writer says:

Let us return to the problem of the missing.

“The missing”, which is the title of another poem in the chapbook, this “hole in your beast”, that which is not there while always being there, somewhere not here but always somewhere, is indeed The Aching Vicinities’ foundation, the space between words and stanzas, the empty, silent space of the page surrounding the printed words, but also what is not there, on the written words, the black typography, the meaning left out, what the voice was unable to express. Think of

The clicking of a laptop at rest

that the voice of “Oh” invokes to remind us of the silent hissing of the end of work. The missing is indeed that “nothing” that the poet does when she writes, the absolute “uselessness” of poetry caused by its indelible, abstract-yet-concrete nature. In other words, The Aching Vicinities speak of the phantasmatic (or ghostly, which is not the same but is related) essence of poetry.

In “It’s Nothing”, the voice says:

I am going nowhere. I am nowhere. I am making nothing.
I’m making something. Something happens, as I see it.
It happens. It’s nothing. This is something.

The self-referential nature of language expresses here the aporetic performance of the poet; the construction of nothing and, with it, the creation of something. “No-Thing” is the spectre itself, brought to reality by the word. “Speak to it, Horatio”, Shakespeare had it said, because the ghost needs to be addressed, needs to be written and pronounced.

The study of spectres is also a study of mourning, and, of course, there is no mourning process that is not at the same time an experience of pain. The Aching Vicinities proposes an approach to the nature of writing as an aching process, and, while at it, an approach to pain as a phantasmatic performance, as what cannot be fixed or detected, which is there without being anywhere, and which certain writing can help become tangible and real.

ache translates to both hunger and habits of escape,

reads a line in the poem which gives the chapbook its title. The hunger, the expression of the missing, desire without referent, the (mourning) rituals in which we engage in order to keep on. The poem deals with the contradiction, (aporia, pharmakon) of writing, exercised by a living body (“the body jerks/to life feeding on/ particles of apprehension/”, Vengua writes). Poetry as a “habit of escape”, is, for Vengua, always related to desire. In the “Want” hay(na)ku, we read:


I write

because I want


escape but

I can’t escape


Impossibility: there is no escape here, but there is no home either. This is the expression of the curse of the poet who does not trust nouns; poetry where the “objects object”. A curse, but also a blessing; a poison, but also a remedy: the aching won’t go away, because it is never anywhere but here, right now, in the expression of a voice which is never the same.

“Desire”, the poet writes, “to modulate between the general and the specific. Or else to delete” (“The Conditions”). This is the guiding force of her writing, a poetic agenda, the alternation between presence and absence, the site of the blinking cursor, between typing and “delete”, between “enter” and the closing of a laptop. By addressing this dialectic between something and nothing, The Aching Vicinities draws the circumference of an area that has no perimeter. Pain can only be addressed indirectly; names can only approach, from a distance, the object they wish to contain.

The Aching Vicinities appears at first as an experiment in different poetic forms, but after a few readings it becomes an apparition, the invocation of spectres, the scholar’s attempt at speaking to a genealogy of skulls. Jean Vengua’s chapbook works as a medium to her poetics, possessed by absence and haunted by the presences of what is no longer there.


Ernesto Priego was born in Mexico City in the mid-seventies. He is the author of Not Even Dogs (Meritage Press, 2006), a collection of hay(na)ku. His translation of Jessica Abel's award-winning graphic novel La Perdida will be out this year in a hardcover edition from Astiberri (Barcelona). He will be pursuing his PhD at University College London starting this Fall.


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