In Manatee Lagoon, her third full-length collection, physician and poet Jenna Le blends traditional form and the current moment. Sonnets, ghazals, pantoums, villanelles, and a “failed georgic” weave in contemporary subject matter, including social-media comment threads, Pap smears, eclipse glasses, and gun violence. Le also sheds light on the experience of being the daughter of Vietnamese refugees in today’s sometimes tense and hostile America. The morning after the 2016 election, as three women of color wait for the bus, one says, “In this new world, we must protect each other.” The book also addresses the topics of implicit bias, the immigration crisis, and damage to the environment.
Le’s previous collection, The History of the Cetacean American Diaspora, used whales to examine the experience of migration; here, the recurring sea mammal is the manatee. A symbol as wide-ranging as the book itself, the genial but vulnerable sea cow gets aligned with mermaids, neurologists, the month of November, harmful political speech, and even a family photo at the titular lagoon.
Manatee Lagoon is a treasury of voices, bringing together the personal and the persona, with poems dedicated to Kate Spade, John Ashbery, and Uruguayan poet Delmira Agustini, and written in the voices of both Polish mathematician Casimir Żorawski and a neighbor of Vincent van Gogh. With this book, Le establishes herself as a talented transcriber of the human condition—and as one of the finest writers of formal verse today.