Rivers divide and connect. They divide land and connect bodies of water. Similarly, Jenna Le’s Six Rivers oozes with nostalgia for her distant motherland and her intellectual ancestors, yet, by writing so vividly about these far-off people and places, Le conjures them closer. Funny, ferocious, and lyrical, Le chronicles her Vietnamese heritage, family lore, sexual awakenings, and her gorey trials as a doctor, all divided by chapters named after the rivers in her life, real (The Charles River), fictional (The River Styx), and creative (The Aorta). Finally, she summons her feminist idols: poets, physicians, and mathematicians who championed the arts, like herself.
Her book starts with a bang: The first poem is titled “Mom’s Cocks.” So begins a hilarious tussle with sex that rages throughout the collection. In this case, “Cocks” are roosters in Vietnam that humped the narrator’s mother’s shoe: “She’s returning to her roots/ as a child who lived among/ unmannered beasts.” The poem manages to be uncomfortable and heartwarming at the same time. We can’t help but wonder if the “unmannered beasts” might have included American soldiers or other unwanted men. Yet, the young narrator identifies with the rooster in her mother’s tale: “And I, through hearing her words,/ am returning there with her: I am the aggressive rooster; I’m the hens/ cowering behind the outhouse; I’m the much-abused,/ much-abraded, Size Four shoe.” Even as she grows older in the book, Le’s narrator is able to empathize with all manner of creatures, ghosts, and inanimate objects, in a charming and lighthearted form of magical realism.
When writing about her family, Le channels the livid and lyrical voice of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” The poem “Inheritance” begins with a bitter tone toward her relatives: “I have my ancestors to thank/ for the skin between my stretch marks...No other heirlooms have lasted.” It isn’t until the final stanza of the poem that we discover the actual source of the narrator’s rage: “I have last century’s warmongers/ to thank for this sorry fact:/ politicians, children trained to kill,/ and an ocean, stormy-yellow-black.” Her inheritance includes more than mere genetics; she inherits the ravages of social injustice.
Once her family moves to the United States, the narrator writes about assimilation with more levity: “America, you’re the Halloween costume/ my immigrant father/ rented and never returned.” Adorable and funny, this fantasy makes immigration seem harmless: her “reptilian tail[ed]” father hunts for “the season’s sweet treats” in bountiful America, and seduces her mother “behind a tall hedge.” But the sweetness of this vision vanishes: “the costumier/ is demanding you back./ He calls our house daily,/ ringing the phone off its hook.” The reader is stunned with this change in tone as her family must have been when discovering the harshness of America. Le dances between comedy and tragedy effortlessly.
Author Jenna Le
We follow the narrator as she enters college, moves to New York, and finds romance that expands and challenges her sense of self. Her forms range from the French villanelle to the Japanese Haibun and Tanka. The so-named “Haibun” meditates on the dangers of sex: “At eighteen, I had an overblown fear of losing my virginity,” she begins. But the brush with abortion at the end of the poem teaches the narrator that her fear wasn’t so overblown. Once she is older, she and her mate were “not realizing that death doesn’t borrow: it only takes.” This turn is chilling.
At times, Le’s anger seethes too strongly. In “Troubadour’s Song,” she lists off a litany of insults against a “cast-iron whore,” without showing a flicker of sympathy or indicating what might have happened between the narrator and the “gutless minnow.” The poem begins much the way it began, without any revelations in between: “your mouth is a nest/ of bird shit, betrayal.” This level of loathing feels unearned.
Thankfully, Le weaves her words meticulously for most of the book. She meditates on her double-life as a physician and poet through visits with her intellectual grandmothers, such as the first computer programmer and daughter of poet Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace. After the young mathematician learns that numbers are an acceptable occupation for a lady, Lovelace’s character makes a telling admission: “From then on, my mind was a fully functioning piano,/ unlike other girls’ brains, clogged with the soft mush of poetry.” The irony here is that Le herself doesn’t see the two subjects as mutually exclusive. Her own mind is “a fully functioning piano,” running over the keys of poetry with a keen ear for rhythm and, yes, numbers. Through rigid structures such as the villanelle, she dissects the human body, in all its beauty and gore, as openly she would on her operating table. This is not “the soft mush of poetry,” but something much stronger.
Rebecca Huval blogs and grant writes at the documentary organization Independent Television Service. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, The Miami Herald, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.
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