diaCRITICS special contributor Sahra Vang Nguyen reviews Jenna Le’s brand-new book of poetry Six Rivers. Jenna Le, a second generation Vietnamese American, draws from six rivers to illustrate and articulate various experiences from mythology to personal history.
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Jenna Le’s debut collection of poetry, Six Rivers, is a vividly illustrated stream of writing and beautifully evocative of past, present and mythical memories. Her subject matter reaches as far back as her mother’s homeland, Vietnam; tangos in modern America with her experiences as a second generation Vietnamese American; and extends into an imaginative dimension dancing with characters of the dead. The book’s composition is craftily broken up into six sections, each named after a different river that is representative of her creative casting. The Perfume River, located in Hue, Vietnam, encompass tales of Vietnam; the Mississippi River sheds childhood memories of growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota; the Charles River share aching love stories from her college years studying in Boston, Massachusetts; in the Hudson River, love and relationships intensify during her post-graduate studies in New York; the Aorta summons a medical theme as Jenna Le eventually becomes a practicing physician; the River Styx, where the god of the underworld, Hades, resides, is an ironically refreshing leap into the future because it advances the reader into a beautiful afterworld that is not meant to incite death but rather inspire from the past.
In “Inheritance,” Jenna Le, paints a beautiful and honest picture of her Vietnamese American identity as the product of war and diaspora:
I have my ancestors to thank/ for the skin between my stretch marks . . . No other heirlooms have lasted . . . I have last century’s warmongers to thank for this sorry fact: politicians, children trained to kill/ and an ocean, stormy-yellow-black.
The skin between her stretch marks elucidates the “tough skin” Vietnamese people have developed through centuries of war, imperialism, global diaspora and rebuilding livelihoods in new nations. Through distressing times, people’s spirits are stretched thin, and Vietnamese people are not one to be broken; with buoyancy on refugee boats and the torrent tide of changing times, they bounce back. In America, the Vietnamese community have a reputation for losing it all and rebuilding, from the Fall of Saigon to Hurricane Katrina; no other heirlooms have survived but the spirit of endurance. The warmongers, child soldiers and stormy-yellow-black ocean speak to the devastating impact the Vietnam War has had on growing generations of Vietnamese Americans.
Not only is Le’s writing vivid and fervent, she has a knack for drawing powerful analogies. In “Tanka (Epitaph For A Young Woman),” her simile for love brings tingles to the back of the reader’s neck:
Her love for her husband/ was like saffron/ a spice made by grinding/ a crocus’s female sex organs/ til just powder remains.
Sensual and provocative, she describes how a love so hot and spicy can make the lover soft, tender and delicate.
In my favorite piece of Le’s, “Haibun,” she reveals the everlasting pain of her abortion:
. . . death doesn’t borrow: it only takes./ Noon sun dries, but cannot heal/ an umbrella/ the storm turned inside-out . . .
The irreversible decision of aborting her child leaves her forever damaged. There is no way to fill such a void, not even another child in the future. That kind of loss will eternally leave a part of her hollowed out.
There is not one word or one theme that can encapsulate Jenna Le’s collection of poetry, Six Rivers. She employs an array of poetic forms from the sonnet to the haibun. She introduces the reader to a range of characters—dead, alive and mythical. As a lover, a medical practician and a storyteller, she demonstrates that her identity as a Vietnamese American is not confined to the social constructions of her skin. She is snarky, humorous, vulnerable and imaginative. Six Rivers evokes a range of emotions—inspiration, empathy and sometimes discomfort. While the chapter ends on the Styx River, it leads you to summon the past in order to imagine new possibilities.
Jenna Le is a second-generation Vietnamese-American, born and raised just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota. She holds degrees from Harvard University (a B.A. in Mathematics) and Columbia University (an M.D.).
Sahra Vang Nguyen is a writer, painter and perpetual student on the path of exploring the human potential. On the professional tip, she is the full-time Director of the Writing Success Program at the University of California, Los Angeles where she helps students discover their voice, power and confidence through the writing process. You can learn more about her art here: www.riotinthesky.com.
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