Review: Love, Memory, and Humor in Chen Chen’s Debut Poetry Collection

NATALIE PATTERSON

When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
By Chen Chen
Published 2017

Winner of the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize, “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities” is a rare and forceful first collection that sets Chen Chen apart from other poets as one of the rising voices in contemporary American poetry and one of the most preeminent poets of 2017.  

Born in Xiamen, China, and raised in the United States, Chen offers a fresh, intersectional perspective as a queer Asian-American man writing about family, personal history, and complex identity.  His use of language is lyrical and sometimes startling in its revelatory comedy, imbued with an element of the surreal that seems to praise the absurd: “My worst simile is that I’m fancy like a piece of salami. Waiting with a cone of gelato” (“Night Falls Like a Button”). However, Chen is not foremost a comic poet; he calls forth a deep, resonating emotion out of images and memories, be it the snapshot of schoolboys in a graveyard (“Frog-Hopping Gravestones”) or the story of how, at age thirteen, he ran away from home and his mother’s ire after confessing that he might be gay (“Race to the Tree”). Chen also writes shamelessly and genuinely about the insecurities, joys, and quotidian details of romantic relationships, making love poems like “For I Will Consider My Boyfriend Jeffrey” and “Song of the Anti-Sisyphus” some of the most moving and compelling pieces in the book.

“Sorrow Song with Optimus Prime” in particular stands out as an aching depiction of sadness suffused with childhood nostalgia. The figure in the poem is “you,” and it seems like Chen is speaking directly to the unhappiness that on occasion overwhelms all humans. “You” try to give away your sadness, try to get rid of it, but nothing will accept it.  Even sentimental memories of childhood offer no relief, because no relief exists–“the sorrow is held by your heart now, your own / exquisite machine that seems to finally contain it.” What makes Chen’s verse so dazzling is its ability to appeal to the reader, to make us feel what he is writing–because he is writing about what we feel.  

The final lines of the poem illustrate Chen’s ability to conjure powerful imagery, to relate to the human condition, and ultimately, to strike readers with sheer profound feeling. Chen writes at the apex of emotion: “So you sit, on the floor of the toy store, like the end / of an avalanche, each rock, tree, & small wish of you / crushed, heaped.  & the scream of your total defeat / is the cry that brought the mountain down.”

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