Poetry by the Sea Sonnet Crown Contest Winner: “Bridesmaid Dress” by Jenna Le


For daughters of the Vietnamese diaspora,
it is not easy to obtain ao dài:
the tightly clinging bodice with its high
stiff collar, joined by hook-and-eye-type clasper,
its long slim raglan sleeves two tubes of whispery
silk, must be custom-fitted to the size
and contours of the wearer’s neck, arms, thighs.
The girl must stand with perfect posture, aspirate
and breathe out naturally while measuring tape
is coiled around her belly, breasts, and wrists
by sternly squatting mother, aunt, or sister,
all while a savvy female relative
stalks through the fabric shop and picks out crape.
It is a whole-clan process, fraught with love.


It is a whole-clan process, fraught with love.
In this one case, my mother’s cousin Hoàng
was bold enough to brave the squawking throng
of shoppers whose gnarled fingers, like mangrove
roots, grabbed at bolts of silk in the alcove
on the commercial street where, flanked by long
cascading samples of his wares, the strong-
eyed tailor chalked and cut and stitched and wove.
Our family’s strewn across the continent—
Dì Hoàng calls Houston home, I’m in Manhattan—
and so we’ve only met on one occasion,
and yet Dì spent full hours selecting satin
to make my dress with, hours she could have spent
enjoying her short trip to our ghosts’ nation.


On her too-fleeting trip to our ghosts’ nation,
our lost Vietnam, from which she and her siblings
were once deracinated like yanked saplings,
packed on a boat, and pressed into migration,
Dì could have had a leisurely vacation
munching bánh bèo until her chin was dribbling
brown fish sauce, jawing with old friends while nibbling
nostalgia-salted snacks: pure relaxation.
But Dì used unrecapturable moments
to survey different tints of garnet red
for her first cousin’s daughter’s new ao dài,
a love my actions had not warranted
but which I had the luck to be lapped by
because my mother’s not just any woman.


Because my mother’s not just any woman,
I’ve benefited from the unearned kindness
that constitutes how family’s defined.
And while Dì Hoàng was busy in Vietnam on
her shopping trip, my mother’s most uncommon
personality and sharp-toothed mind
were tangled in the task of gown design
in their own way: because she lives with snowmen
in Minnesota, I with manhole covers
in New York, Mẹ can’t take my measurements,
and so she emails me a list of lengths
that she commands I find out—my bust size,
my outstretched armpit girth, and twenty others—
and then critiques my painstaking replies.


By email, Mẹ rips into my replies:
“Your neck’s a dozen inches?? Can’t believe it!!!”
I snatch my cell phone from my desk, aggrieved,
and, posing round my neck the googly-eyes
measuring-tape dispenser that was my prize
at some past carnival so that the livid
numeral twelve is easily perceived,
I take a selfie to prove my throat’s true size
and text it to her. If my neck’s as thick
as a buffalo’s, so be it. Mẹ texts back
to say she thinks my measurement technique
is incorrect: the tape should hover higher,
more near my jaw. She’s right, in point of fact.
She’s right at all the darnedest times. Just try her.


Mẹ’s right at all the darnedest times; just try her.
And yet, when there’s a wedding in the offing,
the bride has dibs on being right, and scuffling
is frowned on when you’re in your feast attire.
The lovely, universally admired
bride in this situation was my dolphin-
graceful sister, her own red ao dài’s ruffling
augmented by the dance floor’s amplifier.
Her ao dài was the bright and candid shade
of red that brides for eons have arrayed
themselves in; mine, by my request, was darker,
as if it had a secret at its heart,
a hue befitting someone who takes part
although they’ve never been much of a talker.


Although I’ve never been much of a talker,
I did my bridesmaid duties best I could.
My ao dài helped me feel more understood,
for it, too, did not cede its air of lacquered
mystique: though slits coursed up its firecracker-
red sides, it still with trousers did collude
to make sure that my legs were never nude
but stayed concealed from all would-be hijackers.
And it was fun. When the reception came,
my sister found me and we took a snapshot,
she in her scarlet gown, I in my jasper.
We posed like Charlie’s Angels, fingers aimed
straight at the sky, and somehow this seemed apt
for daughters of the Vietnamese diaspora.