February 24, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jenna Le's debut poetry collection Six Rivers is divided into sections named after rivers, four with physical connections to the author and two (Aorta and River Styx) metaphorical. Le ties these together with a diverse, exacting collection of poems that expertly span both time and form.
David McCann wrote of the book:
"Playful, serious poems; forms deftly dealt with; a voice telling of things seen, imagined: a remarkable collection that moves across cultures telling stories that amuse, illuminate, unsettle, but always manage to carry the reader to a new even when familiar place."
My collection of poetry, Six Rivers, is divided into six sections. Although the book is not strictly autobiographical, each of its six sections corresponds to a different locus on the space-time continuum of my life.
1. "Black Is the Color (Of My True Love's Hair)" - Nina Simone
The first section of the book is titled "The Perfume River," which is the name of the amethyst-colored river that flows through the Vietnamese city of Hue. Hue is where my ancestors come from. Some of my ancestors were Vietnamese kings, virile men with numerous wives and concubines, and Hue was their playground. My ancestors' kingdom has long since collapsed on itself, but their virility still survives in the lustrous black hair of their scattered descendants. Whenever I hear Nina Simone, a proud African-American woman, sing "Black Is the Color (Of My True Love's Hair)," a folk song that is said to have originated in lily-white Scotland, my heart swells with a special kind of vicarious pride. Who knew that so much beauty could arise from the coming-together of two different cultures!
2. "Sweet Thing" - Van Morrison
The second section of my book is titled "The Mississippi River." I was born and raised next to the Mississippi River, about 200 miles south of the river's source. The river's source is called Lake Itasca, and the waters there are very clear and pure and glacial. That's what I'm reminded of when Van Morrison sings, "I will drink the clear, clean water for to quench my thirst." "Clear, clean water" is a lovely image, one that's been imbued with profound spiritual connotations for centuries. In "Sweet Thing," Van uses the image of "clear, clean water" to express his sore-hearted desire to return to the uncorrupted acres of childhood, and his pitch-perfect evocation of nostalgia breaks my heart every time I listen to this song.
3. "Tellement Bu, Tellement Fume" - Joe Dassin
The third section of my book is titled "The Charles River," and it draws upon my experiences living in Boston as a college student. To this day, I love everything about Massachusetts: the bitter snow-packed winters, the multigenerational Russian families in their two-story clapboard houses, the drunk undergraduates swarming Harvard Square. It was a Russian friend in Harvard Square who first introduced me to this charming French song, which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of those carefree days.
4. "Tennessee" - Gillian Welch
The fourth section of my book is titled "The Hudson River," which is of course the name of the river that runs along the western border of New York City. I don't want to talk about New York City right now, though; instead, I want to talk about the song "Tennessee" by Gillian Welch. It's a brilliant piece of music, combining a timeless bluegrass sensibility with 21st-century feminist frankness: "I kissed you 'cause I've never been an angel" is the brutally direct first line of this song. The song is about a doomed love affair that peels away its participants' emotional defenses, the way a homeless man's hands peel a grapefruit. This is how my first four years in New York City made me feel: naked, vulnerable, and hopelessly infatuated.
5. "Beneath the Southern Cross" - Patti Smith
My book's fifth section is titled "The Aorta." It's about illness, and it foreshadows my book's sixth section, which is titled "The River Styx" and is about death. In my life, I've witnessed quite a large number of deaths (I work in a hospital), and I've yet to get used to it. Each individual death is different from all the others. The Patti Smith album Gone Again, on which the song "Beneath the Southern Cross" appears, is blotted by many different deaths: the death of Patti's husband Fred Smith, the death of the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and the death of the musician Jeff Buckley. The way that Patti transmutes all these deaths into such an ethereal-sounding song as "Beneath the Southern Cross" leaves me in awe.
Jenna Le and Six Rivers links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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