Reading the Whales of American Diaspora

Rajiv Mohabir
A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora
By Jenna Lê
Brooklyn, NY: Indolent Books, 2018
94 pages. $14.99 (paperback)

Jenna Lê’s collection, A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (second place winner of the 2017 Elgin Awards), originally published in 2016 by Anchor & Plume and rereleased by Indolent Books in 2018, meditates on the wonders and pains of ancestry, migration, and sexuality, investing in the whale as a symbol for journey. There are so many particularities around cetacean biology and behavior that lend itself to this series of sonar pings of echolocation. What strikes me in the echo chamber of this text is the stake Lê wages with her deliberate use of poetic forms and constraints to convey a whale-ish sense of profundity and reverb.

The collection opens with a quote from the Christian bible that reads “And God created great whales” — which may not be directly from the bible but has a kind of biblical haunting in its rewriting of the creation story. From this moment the work of the poet forges a new understanding of the speakers’ contexts.

The first poem, the titular “A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora,” reveals a formal approach to understanding self-as-immigrant and self-as-cetacean. Lê writes in sonnet form with a regularity of rhyme the reader at first realizes as the opening of a Shakespearean or Spenserian with its abab cdcd of the first two quatrains but stuns and disorients with the following tercets which are dee dff — a regularized pattern, yes, but a departure from expectation. The last dff tercet’s sibilant rhyme between “universe” and “force” is unrecognizable at first glance and imagined as dfg until considered further.

The effect is one of formal haunting. At once the reader is positioned in a new configuration of the world. Expectation disappears with a feel of spontaneity and mystery, invigorated with its deviation from form. Dealing with the natural history of cetacean biology, the poetic turn into the lyric “I” breaches in the eighth line where the collection spy-hops between personal experience and extra-poetic influence. She writes,

exchanging hooves for flippers, sky for bring

—The whale’s a child of immigrants, like me. (3)

But why formal poetry in this collection? I wonder as I read through the pages of poetry where the speakers’ Vietnamese immigrant food and stories lay bare a subjectivity endangered and threatened by white supremacists and dishonest men. Indeed, Lê’s use of villanelle, sonnet, pantoum, and ghazal reflect a form that occurs in the bioacoustic world of whale song: a regularity with refrain and relief of a soundscape. It’s a well-documented fact that humpbacks sing songs that repeat and oftentimes rhyme, so the formal poem makes the content vibrate on the page.

Lê’s approach to content also takes into account the animal connections of humans as a way to separate the artificial fictitious divide that separates human from animal, linking human migration patterns to charismatic species. Lê considers the divide between “levels” of animacy, a concept that lays bare the flawed readings of nonhuman species that possess more human-like qualities the higher order of animal. If a whale sings a song that humans can interpret, then their lives are worth human efforts at population recuperation.

Lê links the phenomenon of human migration to racism and xenophobia to expose intersections of queer sexuality in Asian American spaces in her poem “Whale Song.” A question arises as to the nature of the Other: is the slip in animacy of the queer body one that makes the queer less than straight, or does the queer sacralize the mundane? Who sings for whom? Lê’s answer breaks the surface of this question with a plume of spume. The speaker croons,

Sometimes, like gods,

whales live among us in our towns,

wearing human masks


Case in point: Win Ng,

an artist born in San Francisco’s

Chinatown (12)

The queer is divine and outside of normative space, peripheral just as the human wearing a mask — or even, to extrapolate further, on the periphery of the peripheral “Chinatown.” “Whale Song” considers the life of the Chinese American artist Win Ng of Taylor & Ng and posits a kind of human reading of an Othered body. Lê’s speaker compares the natural wonder of whale biology to the human judgment of queer subjects. She writes,


reviled him. But he sang night

and day like a whale


And so the whales

he painted on mugs

will always sport grins (12)

Considering the Asian American art scene shows the ways in which the speaker uses the poems in this volume to speak out despite reception. Ng as a particular instance opens the speaker to launch into a consideration of the intimacies of home spaces, for the poet to reflect on the curiosities of the pod as a cetacean with one flipper in the air and one in the ocean, recognizing others with similar immigration stories. After reading this poem I looked up Win Ng and found one of his mugs online, and in this instance am a whale-person that this poet sings for.

In an anti-closural gesture, the third section of Lê second collection begins with the biblical tone-setting “and every winged fowl after his kind” as a departure from the first section that make lyric reference to the whale as symbol. But things are not what they seem: the scientific name for the humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, means “big-winged New Englander,” so the resonances of form and content that follow are hauntings of the title’s thematic thrust. As a reader I hold on to the whales as I careen through the seascape of accounts of Asian American migration.

Readers cannot help but hear the affective resonances since Lê’s speakers chronicle various migrations across vast oceans. Lê concludes with the poem “Ark” in a turn that shows precisely how the specifics of her speaker’s own immigration story can resonate across entire oceans and shows on a micro scale the departure of second and third sections altogether.

The free verse poem, “Ark,” spans from a flooded New York City to the diasporas of Vietnamese Americans and Pakistani communities living together despite the fraught tensions of a Catholic and Muslim marriage. Not insignificant is the fact that the speaker and the person they encounter are driving throughout the multi-ethnic city in a shifting space and time, a small kind of migration from the beginning of the poem to the close. Lê overlays biblical myth with the notions of migration, a lifeline extended from one immigrant to another.

Despite the categorical differences of kinds, this union between Ali and Hoa is sanctioned by god as the poet writes of the marriage of Ali, the taxi driver to Hoa (his late Vietnamese wife) who received a message directly from the divine,

But one Sunday, as she knelt in church,

she heard God’s voice

tug at her golden earlobe


Be fruitful… no, be loving (78)

And like the voice of god, speaking in order to stun the reader into submission, Lê concludes with an image that haunts with the velocity of its lyric shift.

And I remember how

Ali’s eyes widened

when, scarcely two feet

ahead of the windshield,

a dove was shaken out of the sky,

the way a woman shakes the knots

out of a long silk scarf. (79)

The reader ends this collection with a message from the divine: the dove falls from the sky — a departure from the whale images and sub arc of the entire collection. The effect is one that shocks the reader into the body, to question the placement and animacies of things in the world around, to question categorizations, to behold every encounter as an encounter with the divine with the missive to be loving haunting the poem’s lyric closure.

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