On Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

Andrew Sargus Klein

Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, Ltd., 2017. 96 pages. $16.00.

“Growing up” is a moving target, really—possibilities can just as easily be expectations. The pressure toward one or the other can be gentle or forced, depending on the source. But sometimes it’s more apparent that our personal trajectories are a clouded overlap of the two, with turbulence just below the surface. In Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, this sort of movement is tipped off right there in the title: to be possible and continue to be possible; to grow up and continue to grow up; to move toward something in order to move toward something else; and to transform anxiety from a fear of the future into an embrace of momentum. These poems live inside that indeterminacy, as ready for bold melancholy as they are for a playful heel turn, for political centering (in “First Light”) or lyric exploration in “Summer was Forever”:

                             But sometimes no one said anything & I saw
him, the local paper boy on his route. His beanstalk frame
& fragile bicycle. & I knew: we would be so terribly
happy. Our work would be simple. Our kissing would rhyme
with cardiac arrest. Birds would overthrow the cathedral towers.
I would have a magician’s hair, full of sleeves & saws,
unashamed to tell the whole town our first date was
in a leaky faucet factory. How we fell in love during jumps
on his tragic uncle’s trampoline. We feel in love in midair.

It’s the restlessness, the constant movement between identities, that might be the heart of this work—a heart big enough for elegies and odes, porn stars and the sea, growing up and running away. And it’s all earnest. Even when the poems sigh with melancholy or force a bitter grin, there is a sincerity that overrides snark or sarcasm or nihilism. These poems are ultimately pointing toward something—something happier, sexier, fuller. The self is often expressed in light of, or backlit by, identity and location. Immigrant, poet, queer, American—pools that ultimately aren’t large enough to reflect something more complex and restless. The political implications of these identities is never far from reach. In an interview with The Rumpus, poet Jennifer S. Cheng said:

Recently a reviewer said my writing is like the “immigrant’s decentered network, a collection of ands and ors that are too intimate, too contradictory to build up to something as singular and definitive as a thesis.” Perhaps the fluidity of identity, of our categories, becomes its own kind of meta-thesis. Why should we pretend that “home” or “American” are monolithic instead of multi-faceted, complex, and slippery? In this way to “explode the very idea of definition” is a political act.

Add queerness, and the meta-thesis of identity grows another tentacle. In “Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls,” Chen grapples with the tokenization and pigeonholing of writers of color by their white colleagues:

I’m remembering what a writer friend once said to me, All you write about
is being gay or Chinese—how I can’t get over that, & wonder if it’s true,

if everything I write is in some way an immigrant narrative or another
coming out story. I recall a recent poem, featuring fishmongers in Seattle,
& that makes me happy—clearly that isn’t about being gay or Chinese.

But then I remember a significant number of Chinese immigrants
live in Seattle & how I found several of the Pike Place fishmongers
attractive when I visited, so I guess that poem’s about being gay

and Chinese, too. So I say to my friend, I’m not sure, & keep eating
the popcorn.

Because what else is there except to keep eating another handful of popcorn? To keep living one’s life as best they can, regardless of its politicization? An impossible paradigm is created for minority writers: write the thing you know because that’s how you make a career, but in doing so you’ve boxed yourself in. If one poem is informed by the necessary politics of identity, then perhaps they all are—but it’s on the reader to be open to more than one possibility at once, to read a poem that stems from a politicized identity and also read it on its own internal terms. This collection is a kaleidoscope of joy, defeat, whimsy, hospital beds, and melodrama, and its refractive qualities only strengthen each other.

These poems are possibilities as much as anything, and Chen sets the terms mainly through a handful of long, prose-like poems. “Race to the Tree” is about a thirteen-year-old boy who has run away at night after telling his mother he thinks he’s gay, which results in physical confrontation. The boy climbs a tree, looks at the moon, and thinks about the classmate to whom he’s attracted.

I wanted to kiss a boy
on the throat, not the soft, smooth
neck but the protruding, tough
core of a boy’s throat

The symbolism and imagery throughout this poem is straightforward (e.g. the moon as Adam’s apple, running away from home, and coming to terms with sexuality) and stays out of its own way. The heartfelt desire to love and be loved is laid bare. Throughout the collection, queerness intersects (and tangles with) family, which in turn intersects with immigration and religion. The back and forth finds an apex in “Self Portrait With & Without,” flowing through the everyday and the spiritual:

With dried cranberries. Without a driver’s license. With my mother’s
mother’s worry.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Without citizenship. With the white boy in ninth grade who called me
ugly. Without my father, for a year, because he had to move away,
to the one job he could find, on the other side of the state.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
With cities fueled by scars. With the footprint of a star. With the white boy
I liked. With him calling me ugly. With my knees on the floor. With my hands
begging for straighter teeth, lighter skin, blue eyes, green eyes,
any eyes brighter, other than mine.

There are moments where the lyrical leaves behind the narrative, sarcasm, and melancholy, and turns to surrealism and myth—softening moments of escape, really. The first line of the collection, in fact, is “Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango.” Later: “The sound the sea makes at night, / delivering its own telegrams— / a sort of sensual / moo,” and “Which birds will pull you into orbit tomorrow?” This use of juxtaposition is subtle and inventive. It moves the poems along from one image to the next with a gentle urgency as it echoes movement within the triangulation of various identities. (NB: Porochista Khakpour’s recent and wonderful meditation on masculinity and poetry includes a look at Chen’s book.)

There is a small but assured magic present in these poems. It’s not hidden, nor is it elusive. What makes it hard to pin down is its scope. Even when Chen is writing about something concrete like a mango or Antarctica, there’s an always-adjacent sense of something else, something less concrete—fearlessness, invisibility, romance.

This collection works along the edge of seen and unseen, of being and waiting to be. For all the restlessness, for all the movement between modes and identities, these poems are never impatient. They are comfortable in ambiguity and searching; they are process-oriented, fairly certain the product is the beginning of another process, another possibility.

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