Review by Zein Sa’dedin
Rarely does a debut collection have the capacity to dazzle its audience so strongly with a sense of hopefulness as When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities (BOA editions, 2017). Chen Chen’s debut explores multitudes of culture, immigration, familial tension and desire through the eyes of its always-bewildered, always-questioning speaker. Its language is filled with joy, though it is not always joyful. Its images are precise, yet somehow seem to hold the entire universe in their grasp.
Chen’s speaker meanders between registers and pop culture references with ease, including Optimus Prime and French footballers, as well as Paul Célan, Sartre, and Kafka. The poet allows each reference the space to breathe and expand on its own terms: there is no hierarchy of image or character as he explores the ways in which they can co-exist within the same consciousness.
These poems delight in language with an intensity and playfulness that facilitate their handling of the unalienable desire that permeates the collection. Chen refuses the authority of finitude, choosing instead to celebrate the in-between, the not-quite, the almost-there. From ‘For I Will Do/Undo What Was Done/Undone To Me,’ he writes:
& thus i pledge allegiance to the always
partial the always translated, the always never
of knowing who’s walking around, what’s being left behind,
the signs, the cries, the breadcrumbs & the blood.
But what speaks more strongly of Chen’s craft is the collection’s never-ending infatuation with the universe. The same poem begins with the declaration:
i pledge allegiance to the already fallen snow
& to the snow now falling. to the old snow & the new.
Chen’s sense of wonder at the natural world and all things within it becomes the guiding force that allows the reader to anchor themselves within the text. Although the speaker explores the boundaries of love and physical desire for another human being, we sense throughout that their true beloved is, first and foremost, the natural world they encounter. ‘Song With a Lyric From Allen Ginsberg’ explores sex and desire as a ‘madness of sweat & rope, / ropes of semen lassoing each other, closer’, but at the heart of the poem lies the question they ask their lover:
& can you believe the trees
out our bedroom window, what a turn-on, nature
even in winter, no I don’t think the earth ever stops
Nature becomes an instigator of desire, a ‘turn-on […] even in winter.’ What excites the speaker is the sheer life-force behind the earth as it never ‘stops being alive’, and the speaker’s awe for the world can be seen to reach its height in moments of sexual desire.
In ‘Race to the Tree,’ Chen follows the thirteen year old speaker after they come out as gay to their traditional parents and are forced to spend the night ‘scrambled up a tree’ following a traumatic argument. The poet describes how they resort to nature, to ‘this old ‘safe’ tree’ for shelter, as if the speaker knows that, regardless of the fickleness and unpredictability of human interaction, the natural world will always exist for them to turn to. The tree and the moon become their only companions for the evening as they are made to process their feelings of desire as well as the rejection of their family. They explain:
I was 13 & wouldn’t have
said it so succinctly, but I knew something
about the sadness of the facts, oh
moon, hungry moon, unkissed
& silent I would kiss you.
Chen’s collection becomes a freshly-crafted and painful love song to the entire universe, with its chaos, order, and everything in between. What makes this so successful – and so contemporary – is the solidity and strength of its central voice; its questioning, at times lonely, always playful, lyric ‘I.’ In ‘In This Economy,’ Chen writes:
I’ve befriended every shade of evening
& they cannot recommend me highly enough. I hold degrees in
both my hands. In my mouth.
Chen prefaces the collection with another of his poems, ‘Self-Portrait As So Much Potential,’ which begins with the lines:
Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango.
As friendly as a tomato. Merciless to chin & shirtfront.
This setting of the scene gives the reader a glimpse of the poet’s seemingly-infinite image repertoire. It illustrates his embrace of the weird, the surreal, and the unexpected turns of phrase that are apparent throughout the collection and contribute to a feeling of sincerity. The ‘I’ is obsessed with endless particulars, an infinity of specifics, that allow the poems to be inclusive and individual at the same time.
Chen is always pushing towards a playful yet earnest exploration of language. In ‘Kafka’s Axe & Michael’s Vest’, the speaker wishes that ‘all language / could be ululation in blue vests.’ Chen’s poetry accomplishes just that. Often, it delights in its own construction: ‘Come amble & ampersand,’ and later, ‘you may / experience some turbulence flatulence a touch of total nauseating / love’ are typical of the kind of self-reflexivity to be found throughout. This is a work that indulges in sounds, in phonetic fluidity. It ululates.
As much as Chen explores dreams of the future and the dynamics of a social and cultural moment, the collection roots itself in personal history. In ‘First Light,’ the speaker revisits the family’s immigration from China and asks: ‘What do I remember of crying?’ The poem then returns to the story of the young speaker coming out to their parents at age thirteen – a memory that haunts the collection. Chen revisits a familial past and navigates the complexity of memory, questioning its validity by giving us a series of ever-changing narratives. Often, we find that ‘One memory claims’ a certain ending, only to be countered by ‘another memory that insists’ otherwise.
Chen Chen’s debut is not short of critical acclaim, having won the 15th annual A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and been longlisted for the 2017 National Book Award for Poetry. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most exciting debuts in recent memory because of its craft and imagination, and is distinguishable from so much contemporary verse in the persistence with its it offers us a vision of hope.
Though there are moments of heart-breaking grief within these poems, the poet’s love for the world is always present. Chen’s poems show us the absurdity of the universe in all its multitudes, and instruct us to keep our heads above water no matter how badly it pours. This is a book that will give even the most cynical of pessimists the urge to dream, and for that reason, this collection is indispensable.
Zein Sa’dedin is a Jordanian poet born and raised in the city of Amman. She holds a BA in English Literature with Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. Some of her work appears in Sukoon and Breakwater Review.