When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities. Chen Chen. BOA Editions. Rochester, New York.
Winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize
Where to start with Chen Chen and When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities? Today's book of poetry could write a blog about Chen Chen's sense of humour, it's priceless. Or, Today's book of poetry could write a blog about Chen's culture jumping headstands and his jumping through hoops, they are both formidable. Today's book of poetry could write about the love poems of Chen Chen, deeply touching, humble and tender. How about poems about family and diaspora and acceptance, Chen finds the room on his dance card for all this and more. You get the picture.
Or, Today's book of poetry could take the proselytizing approach and tell you that When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities will be good for your poetry soul.
I like to say we left at first light
with Chairman Mao himself chasing us in a police car,
my father fighting him off with firecrackers,
even though Mao was already over a decade
dead, & my mother says all my father did
during the Cultural Revolution was teach math,
which he was not qualified to teach, & swim & sunbathe
around Piano Island, a place I never read about
in my American textbooks, a place everybody in the family
says they took me to, & that I loved,
What is it, to remember nothing, of what one loved?
To have forgotten the faces one first kissed?
They ask if I remember them, the aunts, the uncles,
& I say Yes, it's coming back, I say Of course,
when it's No not at all, because when I last saw them
I was three, & the China of my first three years
is largely make-believe, my vast invented country,
my dream before I knew the word "dream,"
my father's martial arts films plus a teaspoon-taste
of history. I like to say we left at first light,
we had to, my parents had been unmasked as the famous
kung fu crime-fighting couple of the Southern provinces,
& the Hong Kong mafia was after us. I like to say
we were helped by a handsome mysterious Northerner,
who turned out himself to be a kung fu master.
I don't like to say, I don't remember crying.
No embracing in the airport, sobbing. I don't remember
feeling bad, leaving China.
I like to say we left at first light, we snuck off
on some secret adventure, while the others were
still sleeping, still blanketed, warm
in their memories of us.
What do I remember of crying? When my mother slapped me
for being dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils,
a dirty, bad son, I cried, thirteen, already too old,
too male for crying. When my father said Get out,
never come back, I cried and ran, threw myself into night.
Then returned, at first light, I don't remember exactly
why, or what exactly came next. One memory claims
my mother rushed into the pink dawn bright
to see what had happened, reaching towards me with her hands,
& I wanted to say No, Don't touch me.
Another memory insists the front door had simply been left
unlocked, & I slipped right through, found my room,
my bed, which felt somehow smaller, & fell asleep, for hours,
before my mother (anybody) seemed to notice.
I'm not certain which is the correct version, but what stays with me
is the leaving, the cry, the country splintering.
It's been another five years since my mother has seen her sisters,
her own mother, who recently had a stroke, who has trouble
recalling who, why, I feel awful, my mother says,
not going back at once to see her. But too much is happening here,
Here, she says, as though it's the most difficult,
least forgivable English word.
What would my mother say, if she were the one writing?
How would her voice sound? Which is really to ask, what is
my best guess, my invented, translated (Chinese-to-English,
English-to-English) mother's voice? She might say:
We left at first light, we had to, the flight was early,
in early spring, Go, my mother urged, what are you doing,
waving at me, crying? Get on that plane before it leaves without you.
It was spring & I could smell it, despite the sterile glass
& metal of the airport--scent of my mother's just-washed hair,
of the just-born flowers of fields we passed on the car ride over,
how I did not know those flowers already
memory, how I thought I could smell them, boarding the plane,
the strange tunnel full of their aroma, their names
I once knew, & my mother's long black hair--so impossible now.
Why did I never consider how different spring could smell, feel,
elsewhere? First light, last scent, lost
country. First & deepest severance that should have
prepared me for all others.
We're going to take the chump's choice, the easy way out -- When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities is flat out, easily one of the very best books of poetry on the horizon. No amount of my faint praise will do the trick proper justice, you will have to see to believe because Chen Chen may be the best poet you haven't heard of yet.
Chen is perfectly capable of the big subjects but his psyche is on hyperdrive and many of his poems read like the musings of some eloquently drunk monk/priest/poet nodding on good wine and mixing a new scripture with imaginative and gigglish glee. Chen changes direction with the dexterity of a unicycle riding juggler. Just another trick he pulls out of his sleeve.
Things Stuck in Other Things Where They Don't Belong
My mother one afternoon in a cowboy hat, sitting on a Texan bench of hay.
Me in the same configuration of time, space, & cowboy hat.
The memory in my brain like a boulder in a haystack, like a bad joke.
The sun in our faces.The year we spent in Fort Worth, Texas, our first year in Mĕiguó.
The fluent Not-English I spoke in kindergarten.
The blond boy from Germany in the same sandbox with me, laughing at my jokes.
His name, Eammon, like Amen, unlike any Chinese or American name
I'd ever heard, a ticklish raindrop
in my ears.
The soy sauce + Tabasco sauce + mud in my "soups."
The same ingredients + sugar in my "pies."
Me in the biggest kitchen I'd ever seen, running around the "island,"
chased by an elderly white man my father said to call my "Texas grandpa."
My father with his full head of black hair & British-inflected English
in the graduate religion program at Texas Christian University.
The grease-tang of kung pao chicken in my mother's skirts,
in my mother's far-away look, after shifts.
The Bengal tigers in the tightly fenced "forest habitat" in the zoo. Eammon & I
The sand in our shoes, the sun on our faces
as we sweated over castle fortification, all afternoon.
The Goodbye I placed in Eammon's ear.
The motels & motels I played Power Ranger in, leaving Texas
because my father had won a scholarship.
The way I came to learn the French word for "scar"
by seeing it over & over in a French Harry Potter, in my American head,
in the small bald spot on the left side of my head,
which I received one afternoon in Texas,
when I was the skinniest, sincerest Superman, & flew into the kitchen
where my mother was removing from the stove
a saucepan of milk, still boiling,
& we bumped into each other -- "cicatrice."
The cicatrice of Eammon's Christmas card, once kept bedside,
now in a box, a basement.
My dream in the motels that my father's scholarship
was a type of ship & soon we'd get to ride it
& read Massachusetts, a vast
Our morning read was snowed out. Milo, our head tech, and Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, called in with "shovelitis". Most of the others had "snowflu" or "late bustosis". I ended up putting Sonny Stitt on the box and bounced Chen Chen's simply marvelous When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities off the walls as the troops slowly marched in.
You all know how much Today's book of poetry loves list poems and Mr. Chen Chen may become the patron Saint of the genre. He has made something new for all of us that is funny, heartbreaking, illuminating, astonishing, fierce and gentle and sometimes just beautifully bright and sparkly. Chen Chen is the Joey Alexander of poetry.
You can look Joey up on YouTube and you'll see he cooks on a whole different planet.
Elegy to Be Exhaled at Dusk
I am an elegy to be exhaled at dusk. I am an elegy to be written on a late
October leaf. An elegy to be blown
from its tree by a late October wind. To be stomped on & through
by passersby old & young
& dead & unborn. To be crinkled & crushed into tiny brown-
orange pieces. & then
collected, painstakingly, no painfully, piece by piece, & assembled like
a puzzle or collage or
Egyptian god, but always incomplete, always a few bits & limbs
missing. An elegy to be
misplaced, stuffed away in the attic's memory & only brought out again
once every occupant of the house has
ceased. Yes, I am an elegy properly architectured by ruin. An elegy that has
experienced crows & lake effect
snow, an elegy that has seen Ukrainian snow falling on the forehead
of Paul Celan, Palu Celan's mother,
the German tongue, the tangled tongues of all your literary
& literal ancestors--but more
than that, an elegy that has felt light, the early morning light falling
on your lovely someone's
lovable bare feet as he walks across the wood floor to sit by the window,
by the plants, with a cup of jasmine
& a book he will barely open but love to hold the weight of
in his lap, I am,
my friend, an elegy that has taken into account, into heart & October wind,
the weight of someone's soft
hair-covered head in someone else's warm, welcoming lap.
Today's book of poetry continues to be gob-smacked happy when something like When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities comes along. And for those of you who remain skeptical after this small sampling - Today's book of poetry is here to tell you that Chen Chen should make you think of a young Gretzky with the powerhouse Oilers, think Glenn Gould in Russia or Aleksandr Baryshnikov with the New York City Ballet. This is how to make an entrance.
* A special reminder today to check out the BLURBS section below to hear what others think of Chen Chen's When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities. Today's book of poetry is not the only admirer of Mr. Chen.
ABOUT THE AUTHORChen Chen was born in Xiamen, China, and grew up in Massachusetts. His debut poetry collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, won the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in two chapbooks and in such publications as Poetry, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Best of the Net,and The Best American Poetry. He is the recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, the Saltonstall Foundation, and Lambda Literary. He earned his BA at Hampshire College and his MFA at Syracuse University. He lives in Lubbock, Texas, where he is pursuing a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. For more about Chen Chen, visit www.chenchenwrites.com.
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