Reviews / March 2012 (Issue 16)

Turning out Alright: Jenna Le's Six Rivers

by Madeleine Marie Slavick

Jenna Le, Six Rivers, NYQ Books, 2011. 77 pgs.

When Cha asked me to review a book, I hesitated. Although I have written several books, edited tens of others and published a handful of poetry titles through a small press, I find it problematic to encapsulate a whole book in several paragraphs. Is it fair? Is it wise? Is it possible? And why have I been selected? I am still asking these questions, a couple of weeks later.

Yet, I selected a collection of poetry, Six Rivers, from the list—the title intrigued.

When I received the book, the earthen tones and the silken matte lamination felt warm in the hand, and the art on the cover (by Austin Allen) felt a bit like Hong Kong. Sadly, our harbour has been narrowed to such an extent that it can sometimes feel like a river.

Six Rivers . The book is structured around four geographical rivers (all of which I have visited)—The Perfume in Vietnam, and The Mississippi, The Charles and The Hudson in the United States—plus two more metaphorical ones, The Aorta and The River Styx.

There is no dedication, which makes the epigraph stand out even more: "And all these rivers converged on a great marsh."

Slim, with exactly fifty pages, the book is Jenna Le's first. She seems fearless. And she veers to the dramatic.

Listen to the last fifteen words of the book: "And I'll be the only bride/wearing carnations, loops of blood-red/carnations, and nothing else."

Listen to the opening river, The Perfume, as rendered in the first poem of the collection, "Mom's Cocks": with chickens "rubbing their feather-padded genitals/against sofa legs and children's shoes." The poem ends: "I/am the aggressive rooster; I'm the hens/cowering behind the outhouse; I'm the much-abased,/much-abraded, Size Four shoe."

There are traces of war and ghosts and stereotypes of Asians in the six poems devoted to The Perfume, and yellow is everywhere—"yellow-tinged," "yellow body," "scrawny yellow efts," "yellow facial hair," "yellow-toothed, yellow-skinned girl" and "an ocean, stormy-yellow-black."

The Mississippi follows. Minneapolis, Le's birthplace according to the short biographical note, is along its banks. "I was the stubborn, shifty kid, "the second generation Vietnamese-American writes in "Early Days," "I'd take walks on the shore where the rabbit traps sprung./And the breeze would lick my ribs with its raw wet tongue/like a hungry Southern boy at a barbecue." She unpacks "the rat-tailed American dream" of her immigrant father, and writes about a piano teacher: "By now, you know his hands better than your dad's –/arched and muscular – a vulture's horny feet."

Then The Charles, where she studied Mathematics at Harvard University. There are beaches and buskers and lobster and fears of pregnancy. Body. Sex. Desire. The poem "Returning to Boston," which closes the chapter, is probably the softest in the whole collection. It ends simply: "Looking back, the two men I loved the most/ were the two men who loved Boston the most."

Next, The Hudson, and Medicine at Columbia. Love poems thicken in this and the next chapter, The Aorta. And throughout the book, Le employs various forms both Asian and Western: sonnet, haibun, villanelle, triolet, tanka. As she writes, the mind can be "a fully functioning piano."

I am partial to shorter forms. This tanka closes The Hudson:

          Tanka (Upper West Side)
          Winter boy, each of your
          fingertips is a bluebird:
          I can feel their beaks and
          soft cheeks against the inside
          of my warm drunk fist.

Another closes The Aorta:

          Tanka (Epitaph for a Young Woman)
          Her love for her husband
          was like saffron,
          a spice made by grinding
          a crocus's female sex organs
          til just powder remains.

I am also partial to the musical and melancholy. Listen to "Triolet (Saigon, 1980)":

          Mister, can you tell me where I can find
          a bedmate for a yellow-tooth, yellow-skinned girl?
          In her thirty years, she has never drunk white whine.
          Mister, can you tell me where I can find
          a replacement for the sister who used to twine
          round her body as she slept, knees tightly curled?
          Mister, can you tell me where I can find
          a bedmate for a yellow-toothed, yellow-skinned girl?

Humour and verse are a joyous togetherness. The surprise!

In "Elegy," there is an exchange between two doctors who are considering a patient with a ten-inch tapeworm in her gut. "Good sir," says the speaker of the poem to a Dr. Robbins, "no matter how straight your posture at the boardroom table,/your intestines are as convoluted as hers."

The patient in "Elegy" dies of metastatic breast cancer that Le calls "less orderly,/less sequential, more cloudlike." The poem ends with a question that lingers: "I wonder: when she died, did her tapeworm outlive her/by a minute, or two, or several? And did it feel a sense of loss?"

Words, images, that arrested me: "secret armpits," "spit floats; blood sinks," "a marriage of jellyfish," "your mouth is a nest/full of bird shit, betrayal," "The hairs on the back of his hands are glassy, erect" and "Our eyes are perfect/zeroes, designed for looking/not being seen."

And more: "Here in Massachusetts, brine scents the sky," "I clung to your brown jacket like a burr," "Back when my breasts and two-piece bathing suit were new," "The top of Baby's head was tinged with blue,/like a wad of foreign money" and "You sing your own hot lullaby."

Inevitably the final river, The River Styx. Here, there are several poems on (dead) women, from Sappho to Louise Bourgeois. A quote from the French-born American artist serves as the opening line of her villanelle: "I was a runaway girl who turned out alright." For the closing line, Jenna Le adds, "running, running nude into the New York City night."

It reminds me of "Art is a guarantee of sanity." I have worn a t-shirt with those words from Louise Borgeois on the front, and her signature spider, large, on the back. Maybe the quote might apply to Six Rivers. It is clear that Jenna Le has confronted many histories, issues and identities in her debut collection.

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