In Chen Chen’s debut collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, the poet deftly explores the possibilities within identity, family, faith, the contemporary moment, our use of language, and always, always love. Chen’s conversational tone, easy wit, artful use of patterning, and focus on his own lived experience smoothly wins his readers’ attention. One can easily imagine Chen as that BFF who is a well-read conversationalist (Ginsberg, Celan, Kafka, Neruda, Trakl) with a flair for language, and who tells you everything.
Chen’s poems address his identity as a young, gay, male, Chinese-American immigrant, as well as the human anxieties and astonishments that we all face. He consistently writes a playful, hope-filled poetry that confronts the questions that most readers face. He lives amidst microwaves, buttered popcorn, multipurpose flour, tomatoes, mother issues, and in weather that is always snowy. And human connection seems to be the poet and the speaker’s greatest desire. In his plainly titled “Nature Poem,” Chin intertwines birds, deer, and a cabin in the wooded dark with ongoing emails, Starbucks, and the difficulty that a contemporary mind has in finding peace or time alone. Rather than romanticizing nature’s beauty or listing a series of ecstatic revelations, Chen presents the natural world as the trigger for the speaker’s loneliness, self-contemplation, and his greater need—not for nature—but for companionship.
the problem was Starbucks. Why can’t you see me? Why can’t I stop
needing you to see me? For someone who looks like you
to look at me, even as the coffee accident
is happening to my second favorite shirt?
In my wooded dark, I try insisting on a supremely tall,
never lonely someone. But every kind of someone needs
someone else to insist with. I need. If not the you
I have memorized & recited & mistaken
for the universe—another you.
Although these poems are largely personal reflections on his own life, memories, or views, Chen does not avoid the political. Readers will encounter social commentary, but it is typically woven into the fabric of the poem. “Talented Human Beings” breaks this pattern. The poem immediately confronts the reader by challenging the assumption that whiteness is the measure for all humanity.
Every day I am asked to care about white people,
especially if they’ve been kidnapped overseas
or are experiencing marital problems in New England,
on screens large & small. I am told American
lives are in danger, American libidos.
Chen speaks his truth, but typically wraps it in a well-whetted wit. He cuts when it is necessary.
It is not easy to enumerate Chen’s themes or to say flatly this is a book about . . . But perhaps Chen gives some indication of his ambition when he says “No, I already write about everything— / & everything is salt, noise, struggle, hair, / carrying, kisses, leaving, myth, popcorn, mothers, bad habits, questions.” The collection does suggest that human identity leads each of us—even when we can’t find answers—to ask questions. Chen engages with a God he cannot believe in. Enduring a mother’s disapproval of his sexuality, he finds himself questioning forgiveness and love. But whether he’s recalling a memory or asking questions, Chen is at heart a love poet. Readers will find his poems frequently closing with images of, or references to, human connection.
In each of three sections, readers find a rolling contemplation of Chen’s life or perspective. The poems frequently incorporate lists, repetition as a rhetorical structure (typically anaphora), and sonic patterning that draws heavily on alliteration. In “Song of the Anti-Sisyphus,” he writes,
I want to be the Anti-Sisyphus, in love
with repetitions, in love, in love. Foolish repetition,
wise repetition. . . .
to replace the clock tick with tambourines.
Chen exploits, plays with, structures his poetry with repetition. He dodges the risk of too much repetition (for the most part) by interweaving rhetorical patterning with surprising imagery and energetic language. Chen knows how to work a simile.
Chen’s imagination is especially satisfying:
I thirst for the starlight
that opens elephant skin.
I thirst for the raven
conjugated into riven
by summer storm.
Who cares what it means! Who cares that readers will not know that elephants were even in the picture? “To the Guanacos at the Syracuse Zoo” also showcases Chen’s style: a structure of rhetorical repetition, wit, a conversational tone, personal detail (“my boyfriend kept calling you guaco-moles”), and an endearing humanity. At a zoo, Chen and his boyfriend mistake guanacos for llamas. Chen builds his poem around an extended apology to the poor mistreated animals. Subtly, the guanacos seem to become more than themselves.
I’m sorry you were not llama-famous, & stuck
in an underfunded zoo in Upstate New York.
After reading more of your bio, I’m sorry your lives
in the wild weren’t so grand either.
It’s hard not to think of the many human lives that are unfamous, stuck in the hinterlands, and misunderstood. At the end of Chen’s list of apologies, he writes “But isn’t this / how it happens? Aren’t all great / love stories, at the core, / great mistakes?” A turn—Chen loves to surprise—that readers will not see coming, but still it’s difficult to imagine any other answer than “yes!”
To buy this collection go here.
Janice N. Harrington’s latest book of poetry is Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin. Earlier books include Even the Hollow My Body Made Is Gone and The Hands of Strangers: Poems from the Nursing Home. She curates a blog on poetic imagery: A Space for Image. Harrington teaches at the University of Illinois.