“Because what breaks me is the thought of their joy, moments before.” writes Chen Chen, author of this brilliant suite of poems and I’m immediately thinking of the weight of “because” grief as a mechanics of cause and effect, so too perhaps with desire. Chen writes “Because how does a queer body?” in Elegy While Listening to a Song I Can’t Help But Move To dedicated to the victims of the Pulse shooting and by virtue of being a monostich the line is isolated, orphaned by the scale of the question.
What Chen has achieved masterfully in these poems is a kind of butterfly effect, capturing with understated precision the becauses that move us toward longing, toward grief, towards love both familial and romantic. Take for instance Chen’s The School of Song, written in thrumming tercets until:
the stove, every burner on, conjuring Friday night dinner. My song hears my two brothers,
home from college, sliding slipper-footed into the kitchen
& hungry, my song
misses them, my song wants to say, I know I haven’t called, to say, I’m still angry,
but should call. My song wants my brothers to know, I’m still angry, but not with you
These lines where the tercet structure breaks for the briefest moment, there is the subtlety of genesis, the true nature of being missed. It’s hard, to know that our family is not our only family, and still to feel as though we are singing our songs alone. These are poems of companionship, of intimacy where the body ricochets joyfully against another. I think Chen is right, the word “Glistening” was created precisely for poems such as these.
In these poems the speaker and by extension the speaker’s body mourns Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen and what can I do but gasp audibly at lines such as this
My mother who once said she wishes she never had me. My mother who still can’t say your boyfriend. But knowing
my mother, I can say she would hold it, even on the news, for everyone to see, because a not-small part of her
would rather miss me than listen to me, listen to me say again, I love him.
I’ll admit, it’s hard to attempt objectivity about these poems, the tragedy beating around them, and not say that I chose to come out to my own family two weeks after the Pulse shooting. Chen concludes
All I know, Drew, is that I’ve searched, but no word could be radiant
enough to grieve you. You who could’ve been a friend, you who
must’ve been my brother.
And I see so much in this again breaking of the tercet but unlike The School of Song it is a monostich looking back at the tercet rather than the feeling of the tercet breaking. In that isolation a different kind of grief, it’s an unimaginable and yet entirely relatable phenomenon in the life of Queer People of Color; to wake up one morning and be missing more siblings than you were before.
And yet the monostich isn’t always lonely, and the summer not solely the province of grief. Sometimes we are finding another “unicorn” as Chen has with his ancestor Joseph O. Legaspi. Sometimes we are in love, sometimes. Chen writes
As if it were new, this light shedding light till we’re the ones wearing itchy layers of gold.
And the hairs on my arm rise in a way that is out of season, it is a different form of because, and I welcome it like I would June in any other season. Here the poet says “June” and I believe him when he says it could be another word, a new word for “skin”. That’s one marvel of Chen Chen’s work, like the summer it reinvents and reinvents with both hollow and humor. The way “Even the sun grows old, the light. But not laughter, never yours.”
- Julian Randall