diaCRITIC Eric Nguyen reviews A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, a poetry collection by Jenna Le.
In the first and title poem of Jenna Le’s A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, the speaker chronicles the evolution of the whale from “a four-legged grassland mammal” to a “surf-drunk humpback.” She imagines the longing the animal might have: “the burn” it feels, she writes “when, self-flung, he flounces out of the water” and “the glacial chill that seals/his tug-sized heart” when “he drops back down.” More than a nature sonnet, the poem emerges as a succinct metaphor: “The whale’s a child of immigrants,” Le writes, “like me.” It’s in many ways a surprisingly apt introduction to a book that is about the metaphors we make for and about ourselves.
In these poems, the human is like a whale, is like a buffalo, is like a duck, among a myriad of other creatures, and each poem is a study of humanity, our experiences, and our search for meaning.
To explore these themes, Le often starts with seemingly innocuous imagery which eventually opens up to reveal layers of personal biography and introspection.
“Suckling” opens with a stanza about humpback whale motherhood:
The milk produced by humpback whales is pink.
The calf rolls over on his side, his inky
Lips glued to his mother’s tit, and drinks
Thick cream the color of blood.
The poem’s encyclopedic lines give way to the speaker’s exploration of her own estranged relationship with her mother: “I’ve long forgot the taste of the milk wrung/from my mother’s breasts in infancy,” she writes. The poem ends with mother and daughter walking a fairground “despite our differences” and drinking “strawberry milk,” an image that returns to the “thick cream the color of blood” in the first stanza. It’s a poem that hits hard because the speaker risks exposing herself and her vulnerabilities.
Poems like “Suckling” contrast to those like “Nature Show,” which begins similarly, though it becomes a dramatically different poem, less intimate, but no less powerful. Here the speaker explains the mating habits of various animals. Describing sex between dolphins, she trades the literal language of biology for one that is more otherworldly where dolphins float “in deep space,” and “where gravity has no import/and…it makes no sense to ask/which one’s on top.” There’s beauty in this imagery, and, the speaker admits, “there’s grace” in coupling. She lists other animals with such “divine” symmetry, ending the list with “some humans, too.” The determiner, “some,” imbues the poem with a striking question: can humanity be as beautiful, as graceful as nature?
It depends. The human body in these poems are subject to interpretation. In “Mirror Gazing,” a speaker observes and describes her naked reflection. “Your vulva is the whale’s beak,” she considers, and “your blow hole, at times,/emits faint vapors of ambergris.” Within lines, we are given imagery that is ugly in one instance (a grotesque beak) and then beautiful the next (like ambergris, a substance used in perfumes).
In addition to these lyric poems pitting the natural world against the human world, Le’s collection has its share of narrative poetry.
In “Why My Friend Heng Lives In Thailand,” a boy runs away after his father kills his pet rooster; in “Mitsu” an office assistant views an immigrant coworker’s accent “with a speck of condescension,” only to feel guilty after the coworker is fired; in “My Imaginary Life as a Narcoleptic,” the speaker imagines herself in a romance movie as a narcoleptic whose medical condition keeps her relationship together. Though the relationship turns abusive, the couple stays together because each fight ends in a narcoleptic attack. The poem ends: “At seven years old, that’s what I thought love was.” This last line is telling of speaker’s motivation for dreaming such a strange romance: she thought this was what love was—not leaving because you can’t. Le’s narrative poems function the way the most stories function: as ways to explain the world.
This is perhaps best seen in one of the collection’s strongest poem, “Exodus.” where Le presents readers with four “versions” of a continuous narrative of a Vietnamese refugee family. The poem as a whole is a prism that highlights how a life can be viewed from different points of views if held up to a light.
In this way, Le’s characters are very much like the speaker in “Mirror Gazing”: they view the world ambiguously and these poems are evidence of them trying to make sense of it. Symbolism and metaphors, then, are not simply descriptors, but something much more weighty, as Le states in the title of one poem, “Our Metaphors Don’t Describe Us; They Are Us.” We are not like animals (like the whales in the first section of the collection); we are animals—with all the characteristic messiness and beauty there is in that word.
Le’s poetic world is not simply one that is open to interpretation but one of interpretation. Because of this, her poems are spaces of changing metaphors, narratives, and self—spaces of resistance.
Interestingly, Le’s poems are rather formalized. There are villanelles and ghazals, but more often, these poems employ structured rhymes schemes reminiscent of older poems. The rhymes often work well, as in “Nursery Rhyme,” where it gives the poem a song-like quality. At times, however, these rhymes are less successful as in “Fishing,” where the rhymes and slant rhymes can feel awkward and forced:
These men seem grand as Gilgamesh
To me; they are what you’d call mensches.
Still, such formalized structures add to Le’s project of re-interpretation. Using old techniques to reimagine meanings, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora is quietly subversive.
In one of the books most defiant poems, “Ark,” the speaker takes a taxi in the middle of Hurricane Sandy. Stuck in the storm, the Bangladeshi cab driver shares stories about his late wife, a Vietnamese woman, and how the couple battled the prejudices of their families. Hearing this, the speaker wonders, “How many of those handpicked couples/on Noah’s ark really loved each other?” The thought questions the traditional biblical story and contrasts it against the taxi driver’s untraditional love. The poem ends with a dove “shaken out of the sky,/the way a woman shakes the knots/out of a long silk scarf.” In the original Noah’s Ark, the dove is subservient to Noah and is tasked to test the waters; Le’s dove flies away into the sky, freed. This is hopeful poetry; indeed, magical poetry.
Buy the book here.
A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora
Anchor & Plume
Eric Nguyen has a MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland. He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA).
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