Earnest, Funny, and Fun: Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities

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I’m suspicious, as I imagine you are, of reviewers who make the review more about themselves than the book they’re discussing, but indulge me for a moment. I’m not a formalist, per se, but I tend toward narrative. I believe in the self, and I believe in meaning. And I believe that poetry is instrumental in the process of effecting and uniting both the self and meaning. In other words, I’m a square, one who hasn’t always enjoyed American poetry’s last decade or so, what with its flarfing and skitteriness; I have been, however, encouraged to see poetry turn away from that dismissive, too-cool-for-school irony and back toward the self, experience, and attempted understanding.

So I should tell you that when I picked up Chen Chen’s first poetry collection and glanced at its thirteen word title—When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities—that seemed to have that familiar, ironic ring to it, I was apprehensive. Jericho Brown’s foreword (Brown selected Chen’s collection for the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize) helped to both ease and sharpen that apprehension. Brown calls the book “beautifully necessary” and praises it for having a “singular and sustained voice,” but he also says that that voice “refuses to give up seeing through the eyes of an adolescent.” When I think adolescent, I hear the word “What-EVER.” So I imagined flippancy. Instead, I found a book of incredibly earnest poems that explore the speaker’s life as a gay immigrant who came to America when he was three. Yes, many of the poems concern themselves with adolescence, but the adolescent experiences they explore, the pain that they contain, make this book anything but superficial; in fact, the poems serve one of literature’s most sacred tasks by showing us what it’s like to be a particular person at a particular time.

Chen’s poems are earnest, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t funny or fun. In fact, what impresses me most is the way they’re able to dart in and out of what, for a lack of a better term, I’m going to call “millennialisms” and a sort of timeless, serious discursiveness. Consider the opening of “To the Guanacos at the Syracuse Zoo”:

I’m sorry I would’ve skipped past your exhibit
on my quest for the elephants, if not
for my boyfriend’s shouting, Look, llamas!
I’m sorry I then called out Llamas! twice,
three times, in the typical zoo attendee’s
Iloveyou! shriek, before noticing your sign:
not llamas but their close relatives, guanacos.
I’m sorry my boyfriend kept calling you
guaca-moles & I’m sorry I found that funny.

The poem opens with an apology, and while that apology is quirky—the poet addresses zoo animals!—there’s a seriousness to it, too, one that keeps it from being silly just to be silly. Naming is important, the poet is saying, a theme he comes back to again and again in this collection. And while this poem begins with phrases like “the typical zoo attendee’s / Iloveyou! shriek” and “guaca-moles” it ends with these lines, which still address the guanacos:

________________I didn’t
intend to meet you & you yourselves were
probably hoping for better. But isn’t this
how it happens? Aren’t all great
love stories, at their core,
great mistakes?

How does poetry like this move so gracefully from the particular to the universal? It’s a mystery, I think, but throughout this collection, Chen demonstrates that he knows how to unite the two.

Chen’s poems thrill, in part, because they can leap from subject to subject, a skill that by itself isn’t unique. Indeed, disassociation has been one of the dominant trends in American poetry for some time now. What makes Chen’s poetry so exhilarating is that these poems always have a center of gravity—the self—that keeps the many subjects they explore in orbit.

Take “Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls,” the penultimate poem in the book, which begins with an address to the “movie-style extra butter microwave popcorn” the speaker can’t stop eating as he’s watching a “movie about an immigrant family / from Lebanon.” He’s crying as he’s watching, prompting a friend to ask, “Does it remind you of your family, leaving China?” The speaker wants to deny this, which in turn causes him to recall a comment another writer said to him: “All you write about / is being gay or Chinese.” The self, the artist, and the art are all threatened: “& [I] wonder if it’s true, / if everything I write is in some way an immigrant narrative or another / coming out story,” Chen writes. Here, Chen presents one of the many difficulties both non-straight and non-white writers face: the idea that they only write about themselves, as though that makes them lesser artists or, for that matter, any different from white writers. It implies limitation, I suppose. Chen counters this thinking wonderfully later in the poem when he writes, “Wish I had thought to say to him, All you write about is being white / or an asshole.” The poem could end here and be a droll middle finger to both the friend and the racism behind the comment. Chen pushes things further, though, adding these lines:

What I had said, No, I already write about everything—
& everything is salt, noise, struggle, hair,
carrying, kisses, leaving, myth, popcorn,
mothers, bad habits, questions.

Again, through the particular Chen reaches the universal. When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities contains poems just like this one: poems of friendship, love, family, the self, art, food, the contemporary moment, the past, and memory. Chen, I’m confident, will be an important voice in American poetry for years to come.

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Author photograph © Jess X. Snow.


James Davis May is the author of Unquiet Things, which was published by Louisiana State University Press. His poems have appeared in Five Points, The New Republic, New England Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. The winner of the Poetry Society of America’s 2016 Cecil Hemley Memorial Award, he lives in Georgia. More from this author →