Six Rivers by Jenna Le
reviewed by ALLISON ELLIOTT

New York Quarterly Books, 2011
The first thing one is apt to notice about Six Rivers, a book of poems by Jenna Le, is that the work is literally divided by six rivers:  the Perfume River, the Mississippi River, the Charles River, the Hudson River, the Aorta and the River Styx.  

Though the book is not necessarily a memoir, the poems in each section do align with personal history.  Poems in the Perfume River (a river in Vietnam, so named because of the aroma from flowers that fall into it in autumn) include reflections on her parents’ homeland.  The Mississippi River follows childhood; the Charles and Hudson River student and young adult life, and then finally the more abstract rivers, the Aorta and River Styx.  Here we find poems looking at the daily work of a doctor, as well as poems in traditional forms, and poems about characters, some real and some mythical.  

When reading Six Rivers, one does not get the sense that the writer is aiming to give a full auto-biographical account.  Instead, the rivers seem to be more like spurs or sources of inspiration than a true timeline.  They also reveal a certain sensibility at work, as seen in the powerful “Ethnography,” which opens with the surprising statement,

    Females of our tribe

     lack beauty . . . 

Here and in other poems, there is a dark ironical humor about life wedded to a kind of tenderness for it.  We see it in full in the short piece “Tire Swing”:  

     Rubber tire, you were once wed to a workaholic wheel;

     when he divorced you, you tried to hang yourself

     from a tree branch;

     now you cradle a child in the curve

     of your rugged arm.

Perhaps this type of observation comes from being a doctor and experiencing the everydayness of sickness and disease, as well as humanity. Or, another source could be the experience of being raised a first- or second-generation American with non-Western roots.  Some of the poems draw on this through the use of classical Asian forms.  Among these is a form, new to me, called the Haibun, which combines prose and haiku.  According to Wikipedia, “the accompanying haiku may have a direct or subtle relationship with the prose and encompass or hint at the gist of what is recorded in the prose sections.”  For any Western reader who could never really get behind the haiku form, (I confess to being one of them), the preceding verses of the Haibun help set a context which gives the final haiku a power it would have been difficult to carry on its own.  This is done very effectively in the poem titled “Haibun,” describing the before and after effects of an abortion.  

There are other examples of Eastern forms in several Tanka poems. The Tanka (thank-you again Wikipedia and Wiki-How) is an ancient form thought “suitable to express . . . private interest in life and expression.”   Unlike the haiku, the Tanka usually has two long lines that allow for this more subjective or personal observation,” usually with some kind of turn or change in the middle. 

In the sweet “Tanka (Upper East Side)”, Le writes 

     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.

At first a nicely observed scene that then becomes a nicely romantic, or at least affectionate, one.  These Eastern forms in the English language become even more intriguing when included alongside poems about family history and ancestry, and the mixed feelings about being an American. 

Another ambivalent American poet, Langston Hughes, wrote, “My soul has grown deep like the river”.  Like the Tanka form, there is something very personal and private about rivers.  When working as a ship steward as a young man, Hughes is said to have once thrown all his books overboard save Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  Presumably, he meant to cut off the past and forge a new poetic identity, a task that only Whitman could guide him in.  In Le’s poems, we see a different sort of task, one that must be familiar to many contemporary poets whatever their background.  The challenge is, and perhaps has always been, how to create a poetic identity while knowing that one can’t really chuck the past overboard and probably doesn’t want to.  Le’s poems show how the larger tradition of the Western Canon and the tradition of a non-Western land can meet in the personal lyric.  In this task, the river is again a useful symbol and guide.  In a meditation on the river, T.S. Eliot writes in The Dry Salvages:  “The river is within us; the sea is all about us.”

He continues,

“ . . . at first recognised as a frontier; .  . .

Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable,

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget . . . 

With this in mind, we might not just consider forgotten rivers as sources of recall, but forgotten nature, as well.  In “Botanical Gardens”, the speaker tours nature, yet a carefully cultivated one within an urban setting.  Still the flowers and their names have the power to bring up the past:

     Names that reminded me of high school girlfriends:

     bee balm, ladybells, mayapple, meadowsweet . . .   

And then the flower names spur a more personal reflection:  

     Your namesake:

     imaptiens

     My namesake:

     inkberry (also known as gallberry).  

In any modern city, particularly the one by the Hudson, it seems easier than ever to forget the past if one wants to.  Older books and films that drudge into the weight and influence of the past on the present can seem as foreign or out-dated as arranged marriages.  In this context, one might need to force remembrance, if it is to come at all.  In Le’s book, the rivers provide this service, the one Eliot rightfully attributes to them, reminding us “of what men choose to forget.”          


ALLISON ELIOTT lives and works in New York City. She is an assistant poetry editor at the online journal 42opus.