Set the Garden on Fire by Chen Chen

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Chen Chen’s debut chapbook, Set the Garden on Fire is a book of poems subtly intruding into the space of a young homosexual man, far away from his homeland in China, labeled refugee, revealing how life can be both caustic and comical at the same time. Kind of a bildungsroman in poetry, the character is a personal sketch of the poet when homesick. Such sickness is not only the literal longing for the home back in China,  but also for the body of his first male crush, where the knowledge of companionship occurred to him. Fearless and surprising, the poems in this collection have been crafted with a sense of ownership and ecstasy during vulnerable times of his family and his personal life.

It was on writing and organizing the poems of this chapbook that Chen Chen discovers the finer nuances of his relationship with his mother. So, does that mean this chapbook is a collective of all his “mother poems”? He says, “It has never been simply one thing, one attitude, or feeling.” In this context I would say, the theme of this collection is not limited to his mother who plays a benevolent corner stone in each poem of his, like she played in each chapter of his growing up.

Each poem in this collection is like a booth with the reader or the poet but one telephone that connects to the world of multifarious affairs. In fact, there’s a pattern that an interested mind may discover which is so intricate and amazing, sharp and endearing. There are hairpin bends in usage of metaphors and imagery and sudden surprises that’ll arrest one by grace and poise. For example, “unashamed to tell the whole town our first date was in an air conditioner factory” from Summer Was Forever, “By dawn I was still 13 & kissless”  from Race to the Tree or “The cake can hunt for itself” from Citizenship. Also, it is quite audacious humour for Chen Chen to be able to portray his mother “a self-taught cockroach assassinand his father, “the universe’s saddest referee”.


Mother, you said, If I knew you’d turn out this way,

I wouldn’t have bothered to feed you your whole life,

to feed myself, when I was pregnant with you.

& I thought, if only I could swallow the fistful of pills

or swallow nothing—if only I had a will to starve.

But I didn’t. I don’t.

& I swear, my mother, even if I can never

speak to you again, say home with you again,

I will speak to my body: Eat.

I will speak to your body: Eat.

Listen, this is our home, our great spinning feast—

the earth.

chen chenWhen it says that this “earth is a spinning feast”, I imagine it being a candy floss spun in such high velocity and then at all consumed in one breath of the tongue. This powerful comparison of a home to a “spinning feast- the earth” to the subtle hint of a candy floss, I wonder how Chen Chen at such a young age could deliver with so much of finesse. This takes me to the first ever phrase from a poem by Chen Chen at The Poetry Foundation, “Maybe, beyond briefcases, we have some things.”

For you to discover more about this book, take yourself beyond my words. Get a copy for yourself and a coffee.

Linda Ashok was one of the 25 feature poets selected by the Prakriti Foundation for The Hindu Lit for Life, 2014. She was selected for the 2015 Napa Valley Writer’s Workshop with Arthur Sze. Her recent works appear on the Big Bridge Anthology of Contemporary Indian Poetry, other press/publications can be found here. Linda is the Founder/Director of RædLeaf Foundation for Poetry & Allied Arts ( She tweets at @thebluelimit. More from this author →