[Review] An Anatomy of Trauma: Jenna Le’s A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora

{Written by John W. Steele, this review is part of Issue 42 (December 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Jenna Le, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, Indolent Books, 2018. 94 pgs.

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In this stunning collection of poetry, Jenna Le—a Minnesota-born daughter of Vietnamese immigrant parents who lives and works as a diagnostic radiologist in New Hampshire—writes with penetrating insight regarding womanhood, displacement and trauma, particularly as experienced by immigrants and their descendants. In her steeled, analytical voice, Le betrays little emotion while at the same time portraying her characters with empathy. Though she often uses traditional forms, her quirky word choice, incisive wit, bold approach to subject matter and jarring rhythms make these forms sound fresh. This book, first published in 2016 and now available in this new edition, won second prize in the 2017 Elgin awards. Le’s first book of poetry, Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011) was an SPD (Small Press Distribution) bestseller.

The first section of A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, entitled “And God created great whales,” begins with a sonnet bearing the title of the book in which she compares a grassland mammal’s evolution into a whale with her own experience. Here are the last seven lines of the poem:

—The whale’s a child of immigrants like me.
I know the burn the surf-drunk humpback feels
when, self-flung, he up-flounces out of water,
dashing the sun’s hot sclera with salt splatter.

I also know the glacial chill that seal
his tug-sized heart off from the universe
when, flubbing flight, he drops back down with force.

Although it can be misleading to identify the poet with the speaker of a poem, I get a sense that Le is being candid in the last tercet about how she defends herself by sealing off her heart from the universe. This isolation of affect is common among those who have experienced a significant amount of trauma. Nevertheless, she is expressing this within the context of her empathic connection with whales: “I feel the burn the surf-drunk humpback feels.”

Le begins her second section, “And every living creature that moveth” with an invocation, entitled “Minnesota.” In this mostly iambic poem, brimming with allusions to Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” Homer’s Iliad and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” Le compares her parents’ voyage to America with the voyage of Helen to Troy. In Iroquois mythology, the Spirit of the West Wind is associated with the panther. Le invokes this spirit as “the Panther straddling god of poems.” In Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” Wenoah’s mother laments the death of Wenoah, who was seduced then abandoned by the West Wind after bearing their child, Hiawatha. The second stanza of Le’s invocation portrays a child-of-immigrants speaker who is apparently so desperate for guidance that she throws herself at the mercy of a spirit—a spirit who, as we know from Longfellow’s poem, may seduce her and then abandon her to die:

West Wind, I need you now. Here, no one shores
me up: I have no teacher, no translator,
no one to stop me from stumbling into craters.
Panther-straddling god of poems, I am for
you and only you. Kiss me like you kissed Wenoah.

A narrative poem in this section, composed in slant-rhymed iambic pentameter, entitled, “My Imaginary Life as a Narcoleptic,” revisits the trauma theme and begins: “When I was seven I aspired to write / a romance film whose heroine has narcolepsy.” Here are the last few lines:

I say to John, “I hate to say this, but
I’m leaving you for another man” “I’ll wring
your skinny neck, you ungrateful slut,”
John answers, lunging at me. My knees buckle
and instantly I fall asleep. It’s thus
that narcolepsy keeps us together shackled.
At seven years old, that’s what I thought love was.

A slant-rhymed sonnet in this section, “Folk Tale,” paints an empathic picture of the traumatic effects of the war on Vietnamese families:

… One night, the woman holds up in the air
a soldiers clothes, and pointing to their shadow,
tells her lonely child, “That is your dad.”
Years pass. The vet comes home. The boy cries, “Dad?
You’re not my dad. My dad is black, like shadow.”

After throwing us off balance with the disarming first line of the following sestet, the
poem turns shockingly dark:

The tale concludes the way you might expect:
the woman slain, her husband locked away
in prison. He’s contrite but it’s too late …

The poem takes an ironic twist in the last line: “Like peace our pity for him comes years late.”

In the third and final section of her book, “And every winged fowl after his kind,” Le continues the trauma theme in a rhymed sonnet entitled: “Our Metaphors Don’t Describe Us; They Are Us,” which begins with a cold, analytical description of brutal sex:

The penis of a feral duck, intent
to scourge the black-plumed female of its kind
with brutish thrusts that she did not consent
to, has a monstrous corkscrew shape, it winds …
After the octet the poem makes a surprising turn:
In Kyoto’s culture, ducks, called oshidori,
are venerated for their gentleness.
In every ancient Japanese folk story,
ducks, male and female, are portrayed as blessed
with human traits: their souls are changeless kernels,
and their pair bonds are said to be eternal.

These two metaphors for human relationships are jarringly juxtaposed: brutish rape versus eternal love. In “Sonnet Written on the Way Home from the Cinema,” the speaker initially appears self-conscious about her expression of outrage over how minorities are treated: “Call it reverse racism if you like / but it enrages me to have to watch …” Later in the poem, after she has described various immigrants facing adversity, she writes:

… objectified, aestheticised, squashed flat,
diminished to a voiceless scrap of yellow

at the edge of an Anglo moviemaker’s shot,
reduced to mute decor at the margins of

then surprises the reader with:

        a white skinned artist’s film.—or call it love.

The last four words convey the empathy the speaker feels toward these immigrants. In the closing lines from “The Ark,” a free verse poem at the very end of the book, Le imagines a taxi as the ark. Notice the technical, emotionally aloof language Le uses to describe herself and the driver and the unusual question she ponders:

Ali’s taxi is watertight,
and it carries him and me,
one male and one female
of the human species,
for many miles through the storm.
I wonder:
how many of those handpicked couples
on Noah’s Ark really loved each other.

The poem ends on an upbeat, hopeful note, folded into this astonishing closing image which hints at the speaker’s empathy for the cab driver:

And I remember how Ali’s eyes widened
when, scarcely two feet
ahead of the windshield
a dove was shaken from the sky,
the way a woman shakes the knots
out of a long silk scarf.

I highly recommend A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora to anyone who loves well-crafted formal or free verse. Le’s deep understanding of traditional forms enables her to compose jarringly beautiful rhythms that bounce in and out of meter or break completely free. The startling juxtaposition of images, insightful descriptions of human and animal behaviour, compelling narratives, quirky, tongue-in-cheek humour and interplay of emotionally remote and empathic perspectives make for a highly engaging reading experience.

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John Steele

John W. Steele is a psychologist, yoga teacher and recent graduate of the MFA Creative Writing  Poetry Program at Western Colorado University, where he studied with Julie Kane, Earnest Hilbert and David Rothman. His poetry has appeared in Blue Unicorn, The Lyric, Society of Classical Poets, Amethyst Review, and Boulder Weekly. Blue Unicorn nominated his poem “My Grandpa Lost” for the 2017 Pushcart prize. His poem, “Ignis Fatuus,” won The Lyric’s Fall 2017 quarterly award.

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