When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities,
Chen Chen

// review by Matilda Berke //

 

In “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential,” Xiamen-born, Massachusetts-raised poet Chen Chen introduces himself as “a gay sipper,” “not the heterosexual neat freak [his] mother raised [him] to be.” Chen Chen’s first release, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, is inexplicably sprinkled with deer. It’s no accident. There is a sense of impossible enchantment that blankets these poems populated with sad guanacos and fearless mangoes and friendly tomatoes, New England Mandarin and Ginsberg and “flying mango-tomato hybrids.” And why not? For a poet who works in the languages of “new honey” and radical self-definition, there exists no better way to bridge trauma and whimsy, the literal and the figurative. Chen’s sense of wonder is accompanied by a razor wit with which he whittles an identity from questions of family, heritage, sexuality, and existence in this three-part exploration of potential as a destination.

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I tried to confuse God by saying I am
a made-up dinosaur & a real dinosaur & who knows maybe
I love you, but then God ended up relating to me. God said I am
a good dinosaur but also sort of evil & sometimes loving no one.

In “I’m Not a Religious Person But,” Chen’s God is incredibly human: lonely, lost, and childlike as the rest of us. Chen searches for an origin story and winds up with “creatures [he] made up or found in a book, then got to know a bit.”

This isolation is inescapable. In “Race to the Tree,” a 13-year-old Chen yearns “to kiss, to be kissed” after first coming out to his mother and fleeing the ensuing friction, but his middle-school crush refuses to look at him. Self-Portrait With & Without” sees him take another stab at self-definition, this time through the lens of distance -- the whiteness, the heteronormativity, the misunderstandings that label him foreign. He mourns his fading memories of leaving a just-as-foreign homeland: the “first & deepest severance that should have prepared [him] for all others.”

One summer, to further the cause, I jerked off

exclusively to Koh Masaki, a Japanese gay porn star.
A big star, with his exquisite scruff, highly
responsive nipples, tireless hips gold & glistening.
But then I felt conflicted, listening to relatives in China
lament the popularity of Japanese cars.

Chen grows wry and irreverent when faced with a world that can seem, even at the best of times, aggressively apathetic. He tackles his torturous discontent through language that is at once bitter and confessional: he is “envious of jealous God’, he “despises your more dramatic / & photogenic envy,” he “was angry in Paris.” Yet he, miraculously, has not become jaded -- no, he welcomes the “unabashed exclamation points!” and doesn’t wish death on anyone besides “Cheney / & racist cops & certain / Wall St. bastards & / the guy who called [him] / a fag.” But as he knows that they (and himself, and everyone he loves) must die, he resigns himself to missing the tongue twisters, the ice cream, “the particular quiet / of my body, your body, opening / a window to listen.

To be a backpack of PB&J & every
thing I know, for my brothers, who are becoming

their own storms. To be, for me, nobody,
homebody, body in bed watching TV. To go 2D

& be a painting, an amateur’s hilltop & stars,
simple decoration for the new apartment

with you.

This is a new kind of desire, the oldest kind imaginable. This is a whole nation of future tense. This is a list of further possibilities. “Every day, / there is a future to be aggressively vaguer about,” Chen writes, admiring his horoscopes and their conviction. It might as well be another self-portrait.

It is here, in the limitless horizons and the rose-colored dawns and the “boldly / silly sort of hope” that we all hold within ourselves, where these poems converge. Chen Chen has proven himself uniquely capable of weaving the impossible magic we seek. Like he says of his mother:

Her special kettle boils in no time, is a feat of engineering.
She could boil my father in it
& he’d come out a better person, in beautiful shoes.
She could boil the Atlantic, the Pacific, every idyllic
American pond with its swans. She would.

 

 

Buy Chen Chen’s debut here. Visit his website here, and follow him on twitter here.