Before I open a book of poems, I always feel a sense of hope. Oftentimes that hope quickly deflates in the first few lines. Sometimes that hope comes in and out like a breeze. Very rarely, that hope turns to something akin to joy. Chen Chen’s debut book of poems, When I Grow Up I Want To Be A List Of Further Possibilities, published by BOA Editions, falls into that rare category—it’s a book that is miraculous in all its pain, trauma, and humor.
At its core, Chen’s book tackles several themes such as migration, coming of age as a gay man, Asian American experience and identity, family love and disappointment, love and unrequited love, and more. But how originally and deftly Chen writes from these experiences is what ultimately makes his book so powerful. Specifically, Chen’s skillful use of repetition to mimic obsessive trauma, his surprising imagistic and sometimes surrealistic leaps, and his use of humor throughout, all work together to create a unique voice.
Part of the power of Chen’s book is derived from the chanting repetition both within poems and threaded throughout the collection. In the poem, “Race to the Tree,” one that focuses on the speaker coming out to his Chinese parents, the phrase “I was 13 &” repeats throughout to show how traumatic events engrave themselves into the human body. In “Self-Portrait With & Without,” Chen starts nearly every phrase with the anaphora of “With:” “With my mother saying, You have to be three times better/than the white kids, at everything. Without a dog or cat. With a fish...” Some of these anaphoras are mundane, some are humorous, but occasionally, they gut the reader in the way trauma enters and exits, but never exits permanently:
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.
Similarly, recurring traumatic experiences such as coming out to Chinese immigrant parents, flit in and out of poems across the entire book, as if to mimic the indelibility of trauma. That indelibility not only appears in “Race to the Tree,” but also in “First Light” as:
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 & ran, threw myself into night.
And again in “Poplar Tree” as:
...After I told my mother I liked a boy
& she said No. You’re sick. Get out
before you get your brothers sick. Sometimes, parents & children
become the most common strangers. Eventually,
a street appears where they can meet again.
Or not. Do I love my mother? Do I have to
forgive to love? Or do I have to love
for forgiveness to even be possible? What do you think?
The speaker in this final poem in the book and throughout his life is grappling with this trauma—unable to forget, but morphing that trauma into something that resembles hope and possibility.
If repetition is a way to reflect and refract trauma, then surprising images and odd surrealistic leaps work against that repetition to add a certain freshness to a repetition that could be deadening, but isn’t. In “Summer Was Forever,” “Our kissing would rhyme/with cardiac arrest.” In the poem, “How I Became Sagacious,” each line is filled with the unexpected:
The day the window grew till it no longer fit the house
Was the night I decided to leave.
I carried in my snake mouth a boxful
of carnal autobiographies.
I went in search of a face without theory.
In “Chapter VIII,” characters such as lovers and parents collide, not literally, but surprisingly:
In our last (ever) Scrabble game, you changed my “whore”
into “whored.” I tried to ask my parents to leave the room,
but not my life. It was very hard. Because the room was the size
of my life. Because my life was small. & wanted to eat candy corn
instead of confrontation.
Moreover, Chen’s oftentimes sad and gutting subject material is sweetened with delicious moments of humor. In “Elegy for My Sadness,” the speaker reflects about teenage angst in Paris:
They should’ve never
been born. They should’ve never seen me
in Paris, a sad teenage
exchange student. I was so sad
& so teenaged, one day my host sister
gripped my hand hard & even harder
said, SOIS HEUREUX.
BE HAPPY. & miraculously,
I wasn’t sad anymore.
All I felt was the desire to slap my host sister.
See, I was angry in Paris, which is clearly
Several other poems contain a certain other kind of humor related to the speaker’s Chinese immigrant parents who have expectations of the speaker. In “Summer Was Forever:” “Or a croissant factory. What kind/of work do I need to be doing? My parents said: Doctor,/married to lawyer. The faucet said: Drip, drop,/your life sucks.” Similarly in “Self-Portrait With & Without,” the mother says: “You have to be three times better/than the white kids, at everything.” And in “Talking to God About Heaven from the Bed of a Heather,” the poem talks about the speaker attending Bible camp one summer: “(my devoutly pragmatic parents signed me up because the camp was free)...” Perhaps being Chinese American myself, these moments made me chuckle sprinkled with a degree of pathos.
Beyond the mesmerizing repetition, unexpected images and language, and humor, many of the poems are philosophical, questioning, and have beautiful lyrical endings. In one of the final poems, “Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls,” the speaker laments over a friend’s comment: “All you write about/is being gay or Chinese”—how wrong this “writer friend” is, for Chen writes about love and ultimately about forgiveness. This is a book that is part elegy for the past and part love song for the future. This remarkable debut is hopefully the first of many possibilities to come.
Victoria Chang’s fourth book of poems, Barbie Chang, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2017. Her most recent book, The Boss, published by McSweeney’s won the PEN Center USA Literary Award and a California Book Award. Her other books are Salvinia Molesta and Circle. She also writes children’s books and her picture book, Is Mommy?, illustrated by Marla Frazee was named a New York Times Notable Book. She lives in Southern California with her family and teaches at Chapman University and Orange County School of the Arts. You can find her at www.victoriachangpoet.com.