Jenna Le (Featured Poet)


Here, the sly West Wind waylaid sweet Wenonah.
This same breeze, some centuries before,
blew headstrong Helen's skiff toward Troy's wine kraters.
One and the same gust, some lifetimes later,
pushed my parents' ship toward U.S. shores.

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 Wenonah.

The Patient

His surname's Spanish, but his eyes are shaped
like almonds, like my father's. "Filipino,"
he grins, "And you?" "I'm Vietnamese," I answer.
"How do you feel?" I ask. He shifts his nape
on the hospital pillow. "Doc, this chemo
is something else. I've lived five years with cancer,

and this is the first morning that I've felt
too weak to hit the pool and swim ten laps.
Does everybody feel weak after TACE?"
"Some people do," I say. I prod the welt
in his groin with gloved fingers, note his rapid
pulse rate. He says, "You have such a young face,

Doc, you remind me of my baby daughter—
she started med school just this fall." "How proud
you both must be!" I clap my hands. In Asia,
nothing brings greater pleasure to a father
than the ability to boast about
a child who wears a stethoscope and pager,

and, gazing at the gaunt man stretched before me,
I suddenly remember how my dad
teared up when I received my own diploma.
The patient's eyes, his almond eyes, are stormy
now, his voice thick: "Look, Doc, I know it's bad,
this tumor that I have, this hepatoma.

I know that, in the end, it's sure to kill me.
I am not asking to be saved from death.
All I ask is a chance at witnessing
my Beth get her MD…." And though it fills me
with pain to think of the pressure this puts on Beth,
I wish that I could promise everything.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

As an imaginative kid who loved to read about the myth of mermaids,
I wanted not to be a doctor or a writer but a mother of mermaids.

I'd heard that if I swallowed whole the tough, translucent tails of
they'd somehow find their way into my uterus and I'd give birth to

I'd hoard shrimp tails inside a napkin, pop them one by one in secret,
then scan my pee with greedy eyes to see if in it didn't slither

Some kids incline toward witch-and-warlock lore. I was too
Some kids are drawn to vampires, some to werewolves. Me, I would
     just rather mermaids.

An insecure young girl, I craved the praise of supermarket strangers;
I wanted them to gawk: "There goes the goddess in whose belly
     gather mermaids!"

And, like my mom, I longed to parent special kids who could achieve
what I could not, swim places barred to me. Therefore, I staked my
     worth on mermaids.

The Mirror

For Christmas, Great-Aunt Clementine gives me a full-length mirror.
      She's as transparent as the glass is clear:
     she thinks that if I have to saunter past
my own reflection all the time, I'll grow to prize my assets

(I'm talking carnal assets: i.e., face and bod), that I will
      start wearing makeup regularly, style
      my tousled locks each morning and each night
apply Crest Whitestrips to my tea-stained choppers, keep a diet

that slims my blubber-padded waist, all with an eye toward catching
      a handsome husband surnamed Gates or Deng
      or Rockefeller, just some nice young man
about whom she can say, "He's why she left home for Manhattan."

I loathe that mirror. It's not exactly that I fear it'll siphon
      my soul into a netherworld malign,
      a demon-ridden fourth dimension, or
that ghosts will clamber through its frame at night, or some such horror

      film plot. Those things could happen in a flash,
but what I dread the most is that my sense of me might vanish.

An Argument Against Overthinking Things

When a long-lost childhood friend, deep-voiced,
phones you out of the blue, asks, "Lunch tomorrow?",
there are a couple options. Maybe he nursed
a secret crush when you were a teenage zero
with chimpanzee-esque posture and unsightly
acne and wants to make a long-enshrined
sexual fantasy come true. More likely,
he's haunted by the memory of one time
he pushed you off the jungle gym at recess
when you both were five and plans to atone
by treating you to half-priced deep-dish pizzas.
Either way, you smile into the phone.
It's not just that you hate to eat alone,
but, at your age, you cling to reminiscence.

A Gloss on Epictetus

"Were I a nightingale, I would act the part of a nightingale; were I a swan, the part of a swan."

were i a chicken
i'd mill in a pen
filled with thousands
of shrill chickens

till a sullen farmhand
with swollen hands
swung me up
by my ankles and

hung me up
side down from a hook
before reaching
to do the same trick

to another screeching
bird then another (each
catch-and-hang op
takes a fleeting

nine seconds tops)
toiling nonstop
in this way till his ten
hour shift was up

Pockets Full of Sand

At the clinic, waiting for my test results:
the earth turns on that moment like an axle.
It's a heavy moment, weighted down
with dark matter—I'm reminded of my first
day of kindergarten when, impatient
to show the other kids that I was "fun,"
I raised a sand-filled pail above my head
only to lose my grip and spill its contents
all over my best dress. For months, I only
had to stick my hands inside the pockets
of that dress and feel the gritty substance
adherent to its cotton seams to know
I was born different, defective, apart.

Pockets full of sand,
pockets full of dark matter.

Why is it that, at all the lowest moments
of my life, I'm thrust inside that memory
again, forced to relive the shame, the panic
of realizing the plastic pail I'm hoisting
is heavier than I can bear? The earth
turns on this moment as it turned on that one.
And, as the nurse walks in the room, the pail
begins to tip, like in that instant when
Hippolytus, face frozen in a polite expression,
asked his stepmother, "Can't we be just friends?"

Against Empiricism

True, no one can prove
the sun will rise tomorrow.
Still, I know for sure
Miss Dunne of Teterboro

will rise at five and dress
herself with no one's aid,
then, leaning on the oak
cane she inherited

when her twin brother died
four years ago (she still
gets teary at the thought),
apply her steadfast will

to descend the thirty steps
from apartment down to street,
give dollar bills and candy
to neighbors' kids she meets,

and keep all her appointments
with punctuality
the way her father taught her
as a girl in Tennessee,

so, no matter what
Hume says in his Enquiry,
in a way it's certain
the sun will rise a priori.


Jenna Le is the author of Six Rivers (NYQ Books, 2011), which was a Small Press Distribution Bestseller, and A History of the Cetacean American Diaspora (forthcoming from Anchor and Plume Press, 2016). Her poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, and translations appear or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Bellevue Literary Review, The Best of the Raintown Review, The Los Angeles Review, Massachusetts Review, Measure, The Village Voice, and elsewhere. She has a B.A. in mathematics and an M.D., and she works as a physician in New York.

32 Poems
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