I am drawn to poetry about the difficulties of family, about the pain of feeling one is a disappointment to their parents, about the sense of separation that can come as a result. Chen Chen’s debut collection is filled with work which explores this universe. This is tricky subject matter to tackle, because it lends itself to both rant and cloying sentimentality and it’s easy (I know from experience) to have them go sideways like a car on ice. Chen Chen avoids this with a mix of wry humor and a light touch that Jericho Brown, who selected this book as the winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, describes as “comedy… juxtaposed with a sense of wonder characterized by the surreal as an element of the quotidian.”
Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your copy of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Chen Chen, you’ll need to to subscribe by March 20!
The result of Chen Chen’s unique take is that many of the poems in this book show how joy and pain, far from being opposites, coexist and even exist symbiotically. For instance, the poem “Second Thoughts on a Winter Afternoon” begins with the flexibility of English, especially slang, the way we repurpose words in clever ways and then four lines in it’s
…I can also think of my mother,
how your mother’s pancreatic cancer doesn’t sound
as pretty as the problem my mother has with her heart,
heartbeat, & I can even think my mother has it tougher,
though it isn’t cancer, & of course I’d think that, she’s mom,
mommy, though of course this woman is mom, mommy
to you, & mommy is very sick, & actually I hate how words
get outdated or we outgrow them, & I think you do, too,
for another nine breathless lines. That’s about the place where I realized, on my first read through, that I was smiling broadly in the middle of a poem about two people caught in a semi-manic fear trap about the failing health of their mothers.
But there are also poems which are just pure joy, such as Chen’s “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey,” which is a riff on Fragment B of Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno.” Smart’s poem on the whole is a experience of religious ecstasy, and this fragment is a long list of ways in which his cat Geoffrey shows God’s presence and power in the world. Chen’s boyfriend Jeffrey is, as the second line tells us, an atheist who “makes room for the unseen, unsayable,” but the poem is really about their relationship, about how Jeffrey “dances in his seat while driving us to the supermarket” or how “his work involves many instruments, including a large, completely unnecessary keytar, or keyboard guitar, which he plays beautifully,” or how “though he does not fare well on planes he will fly to those he loves.” It’s a glorious, unashamed love poem, without a hint of ironic detachment, and I revel in it.
There’s much more within this book’s pages, and I’m looking forward to talking about it both with our Poetry Book Club members and with Chen Chen during our exclusive members-only online chat at the end of the month. I hope you’ll be a part of the conversation!