Chen Chen Review

by Haven Gomez

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Chen Chen

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

BOA Editions, 2017

If all Chen writes about is “being gay or Chinese,” why, then, do his words speak of such familiar truths? He questions, much as we all do, whether his actions are ever good enough. He questions whether it’s possible to transform, as his title states, to a person filled with “further possibilities.” Through Asian American, immigrant, and queer perspectives, we see how the disappointments caused by parents create cavernous rifts, that there is no freedom in shame, and the necessity and joy of creating our own identities.

With comedy juxtaposed by both surrealist wonder and heartbreak, we see lines such as “I wished for a place big enough for grief, / & all I got was more grief, plus People magazine.” Beyond this, though, we see a personal narrative unravel with playful tones layered atop serious familial issues. We are given honesty in vulnerability and shame, but we are also given the hope of a less pained future and the joy of simplicity.

I’ve always been skeptical of love poems, but Chen’s hum with a newness: “I want love as dirty as a snowball fight // in the sludge, under grimy yellow lights.” This love is messy and fun. It is unperfect and honest. “I want insomnia,” he writes, and I am surprised. “I am an elegy to be written on a late / October leaf,” and I am further surprised by the journey of this leaf. It is stepped on, crumbled, forgotten, and left where memories die, but soon transforms to the tender moments shared in the quiet by lovers. His love poems speak of service and worth, an elegy transforming to odes of passion, the subtly of death and rebirth in the Autumn season.

Chen’s collection is filled with versatility. From one poem to the next, we see changes in form, from lines formed as if in prose to musical couplets, use of white space to big clusters of words filling every bit of the page. Each poem is its own little narrative, an ode, an elegy, playful to grim to playful. Each poem reflecting questions asked in new and brilliant ways, and a mind that won’t settle for anything but the truth. May this be the first book of many.

—Haven Gomez