Review of A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora by Jenna Le
Anchor & Plume, 2016. Paper, 72 pages. $15.
Whales are a vehicle in Jenna Le's second full-length poetry collection, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (Baton Rouge, LA: Anchor & Plume, 2016). And I like thinking of them this way, as a vehicle—as a means of portraying the tenor of life for those who are descended from immigrants and as a literal living vehicle that can fill its massive lungs and then plunge a reader into unexpected depths.
A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora is not what I thought it was. The entire first section, with the epigraphic title "And God created great whales," actually is about whales, or frequently mentions them, or sea life. The imagery is finned and tentacle, and here the book stays close to its aquatic theme.
The lead poem in the collection, which is the title poem, lays out the cetacean metaphor quite beautifully, pointing out that whales evolved from a particular grassland quadruped, before "exchanging hooves for flippers, sky for brine." Writes Le,
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 seals
his tug-sized heart off from the universe
when, flubbing flight, he drops back down with force.
I can believe it is this way for a person of Asian descent living in the United States—that to leap to the identity of one's ancestors is to burn, or to risk painful non-acceptance, and to submerge into the dominant culture is to chill, or to lose a source of warmth and connection. A whale moves through the liminal spaces and knows both water and sky,
The later sections, though, submerge the reader in the experience Le knows as a child of Vietnamese immigrants and as a physician who lives and works in the diverse setting of the Bronx. The book is broken into four sections, each headed with a portion of a Bible passage, and each new section is a surprise—a leap into new water.
Section II, "And every living creature that moveth," tells the stories of a number of immigrants, people on the move or recently displaced. It also includes a number of poems that feel personal and autobiographical, some of them about the medical profession.
A story of one immigrant, an Indochinese factory worker during World War II, is told in "Công Binh:
Boss knew I had a name, but never used it. Couldn't pronounce it.
Didn't care how many aunts I have, or on what beach our town sits.
He haded me a printed card to hold and took my mugshot.
The card read: Z A O 16. The ship's hold smelled like dogshit...
In reading this poem, I felt on a gut level the tragedy of someone being denied a name; later in the poem, when a German boss takes over for the French one in Marseille, the cost of denial of identity is made more familiar to a reader who knows much about World War II but little about the reality of life for Indochinese workers in the mid-twentieth century. Le does that—she offers insight, important insight, for readers who very likely lack it, and she does this through moving words and case studies. I love the poetry, which has sophisticated craft (note the subtle rhyme), which moves me at times to tears—but I appreciate the education, too, because there is much to learn from the experiences she writes about.
In Section III, "And every winged fowl after his kind," Le's poems begin to merge the natural world from the first section with the immigrant experiences of the second. I admire what she does in her poem "On Being Asian-American," partially included here:
this rubber duck
at a novelty store:
with an orange beak
but a vibrant
with a corona
Fact: nothing on earth
is allowed to be a duck
and a flower
This complicated and lively metaphor reifies the theme of liminality in a playful and yet moving way, and that was my experience of the whole work: so much to envision and to think about and to feel, like occupying many worlds, all in the singular life of a book.
You can purchase A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora here.
Karen Craigo is the author of the poetry collection No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and the forthcoming collection Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017). She also has a new chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Fit In (Hermeneutic Chaos, 2016). She maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity, and she teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri. She is the nonfiction editor and former editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review, the interviews editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, an editor of Gingko Tree Review, and the managing editor of ELJ Publications.