WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A LIST OF FURTHER POSSIBILITIES: A review of Chen Chen’s debut poetry collection

In The Botantical Garden, Jess X. Snow

If your only encounter with Chen Chen is his poem, for i will do/undo what was done/undone to me from Best American Poetry 2016 (published in [PANK]), let me disabuse you of any notion that this poem represents a moment of particularly intensified emotion for the poet. Despite the tensions in Chen’s work, unabashed ecstasy — jubilance tinged with a sort of baffling anguish — is the order of every moment.

For i will do weaves together the celebratory and the unbearable, but it is the sound that makes it soar. For Chen this is all in the proofing. Take the lovely Night falls like a button from When I Grow Up I Want To Be a List of Further Possibilities, last year’s winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. It is a poem in dialogue with one of the book’s binding throughlines — a boy who spends the night in a tree after a scarring row with his mother:

Some have said Chen’s love-laments suggest forerunner Neruda. His use of the deep image seems precast by Lorca. In other words, it’s pure Chen: grandiose, a bit surreal, funny, a poet consistently struck by the world’s stinging beauty. These reveries wrap themselves around very real tensions, however. Navigating, negotiating, and reconciling disjunctions — with gods and llamas, with Envy and Sorrow — is central to When I Grow Up.

Chen left China with his family as a young boy in what he refers to in First Light as his “First & deepest severance.” He grew up in the States in the nineties, and in In the City, we find the poet attempting to reconcile the multicultural nirvana of New York City — where he can eat dumplings and finally forgive “the Broken English of Our Mothers” — with an America where freedom purports to be, but isn’t, absolute. The poem begins, “These bridges are a feat of engineering.” Chen mines this trope, revealing not all bridges are connections: “I try to build a bridge / to my parents but only reach my mother and it’s a bridge she’s about to / jump off.” Here’s more of In the City:

The poem continues with the mother’s kettle boiling every “idyllic American pond,” and even the swans are boiled in an effort to make things clean. This, too, is pure Chen: jubilant, outraged, a lone citizen of the world spinning in place but longing for stillness.

Many poems in this book are set on the cusp of forging an identity while bridging the gap from boy to man, from disappointing son to vulnerable lover. “Why can’t you see me? Why can’t I stop needing you to see me?” the speaker asks in Nature Poem, and the question is in many ways this book’s essence and its genesis. The speaker’s voice often bounces around a finite space of boyish innocence where doubt, indignation, and desire can be freely uttered. But Chen can be as close to innocence as he is to world-weariness; it limns his desire and haunts his awe. Elegy, for example, pivots from oath to bewilderment and surrenders, naturally, with a dazzling image:

A bridge from boy to man builds itself given time, but other crossings are more elusive. In Talented Human Beings, for instance, the speaker says, “Every day I am asked to care about white people” but no one can name “one book by Maxine Hong Kingston / not titled The Woman Warrior,” or Vincent Chin or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Asian-Americans who died without the anger so easily allotted to others. The schism between mother and son, also, is a blade that cuts through the book: “I didn’t tell him I spent all night in a tree / because my mother slapped me / after I told her I might be gay. / I didn’t tell him that I hit her back, // that my father tried holding us apart / like the universe’s saddest referee” (Race to the Tree).

For Chen, there are existential bridges as well. Some seem to the poet unnecessary: how silly to have to forgive in order to love, to be either here or there. How difficult, too, to navigate a world as someone for whom “clouds fall completely apart and everyone just says it’s raining.” Even stylistic bridges, such as the bridge of metaphor, which connects tenor and vehicle, Chen approaches as a game, pushing them for all their worth where “fog is a giant’s lost silver blanket,” and “the sun sets like an expensive fragrance,” then later “like a science special I hated once.”

Chen’s reliance on anaphora is approached with similar abandon. Chen has said in an interview for The Adroit Journal that the poem can often be like “a stench” he follows, rarely an idea he develops. Anaphora helps these poems open like a bloom — or pull us along as a “stench” — and gives the sense that the poet is creating the poem contemporaneously with the reader reading. We come to its surprises together, just as Frost has said we should.

The effect can also be a foil for declarations that alone might wobble with their own weight. For example, from Self-Portrait With & Without delivers a blunt truth as just another item on a list:

The disadvantages of this form can be its reliance on a syntactically similar structure, often simple sentences, and it can set a trap where the poet is constantly reaching but never arriving. In fact, it’s the poems that delve vertically rather than horizontally that stand out, as if in relief — poems like Elegy, quoted above, Sorrow Song with Optimus Prime, and Summer Was Forever, an irregular sonnet. But Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls rides its anaphoric “can’t” like a streetcar. It is a roman à clef placed near the end of the book as envoi, not prelude — a choice that deepens other poems but doesn’t bait the reader’s hook. It concerns, in part, a friend’s accusation that “All you write about is being gay and Chinese.” It is a charge the poet scorns — he wants to write about everything — “& everything is salt, noise, struggle, hair, / carrying, kisses, leaving, myth, popcorn, // mothers, bad habits, questions” (incidentally, this book in a nutshell). Cathy Park Hong has written, “...there is always a subject — and beyond that, the specter of the author’s visage… .” Chen, gay and Asian-American, knows that a poem’s content is never divorced from the conditions of its making. It is another disjunction — a space to collapse, a bridge to be engineered.

In for i will do/undo what was done/undone to me, the poet pledges himself to the “always / partial, the always translated, the always never / of knowing who’s walking around, what’s being left behind […]”. The A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize honors a poet’s first book, and this book wears its radical innocence on its literal sleeve. It lives within this “never of knowing” — ecstatically, agonizingly, where every encounter has the capacity to astonish.