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

Read August to September 2019
Recommended for fans of poetry
★   ★    ★   

#3 on the recent attempt at TBR books that Turned Out to be Okay But Not Amazing

Asthetics were totally pleasing and tempting. Love the cover, love the formatting of the poetry, love the repetition of the name. And that title! How could I not give it a try?

Along with a ‘Foreword,’ it contains an introduction, three sections and an afterword. In the foreword, Jericho Brown writes, “a speaker whose obsessive and curious nature is that of an adult who refuses to give up seeing through the eyes of an adolescent, one who believes that the world is a malleable place and that asking the right questions changes its form.”

I don’t know about the later bit, but I would agree that the feel of these poems is that of an young person, though through collegiate age more than ‘adolescent.’ In fact, I was highly reminded of my own college years and discussions with non-American born friends. This, I suppose, a testament to a strength and weakness of the collection. Most of it was about identity (gay, Chinese, immigrant, young), and the not unexpected issues that come with that time period. Relationships are particularly important, particularly with parents and God (or lack thereof), along with themes of sexuality, race, parental illness and love.

‘In the Hospital’

My mother was in the hospital & everyone wanted to be my friend.
but I was busy making a list: good dog, bad citizen, short
skeleton, tall mocha. Typical Tuesday.
My mother was in the hospital & no one wanted to be her friend.
Everyone wanted to be soft cooing sympathies. Very reasonable
pigeons. No one had the time & our solution to it
was to buy shiner watches. We were enamored with
what our wrists could declare. My mother was in the hospital
& I didn’t want to be her friend. Typical son. Tall latte, short tale
bad plot, great wifi in the atypical cafe. My mother was in the hospital
& she didn’t want to be her friend. she wanted to be the family
grocery list. Low-fat yogurt, firm tofu. She didn’t trust my father
to be it. You always forget something, she said, even when
I do the list for you. Even then.’

Warning: he tends to talk a lot about his mother.

Style is usually free-form, with a lyricism that reminds me of Adrienne Rich and usually works for me. Occasionally he is capable of sublime description:

‘The reader’s face is a child’s rapt face. The book is her latest
soul, disguised as a more or less acceptable concrete object.
The child is happy. The afternoon a novel.’

–from ‘In Search of the Least Abandoned Constellation

There’s also some playful, lyrical bits:

‘i pledge allegiance to the already fallen snow
& to the snow now falling. to the old snow & the new.
to foot & paw & tire prints in the snow both young & aging,
the deep & shallow marks left on cold streets, our long

misbegotten manuscripts. i pledge allegiance to the weather
report that promises more snow, plus freezing rain.
though i would minus the pluvial & plus the multitude

of messages pressed muddy into the perfectly
mutable snow, i have faith in the report that goes on to read:
by the end of the week, there will be an increased storm-related
illegibility of the asphalt & concrete & brick. for i pledge’

–from ‘For I Will Do/Undo What Was Done/Undone To Me

Interestingly, though it reminded me in many ways, both stylistically and thematically of The Dream of a Common Language,** the poetry was more temporal and culturally defined, and thus didn’t transcend as well. Here, in 2019, I can read Dream and empathize. Chen mentions Starbucks, reality tv, Journey to the West, Monkey King’s quest, Power Rangers, Cheney (as in Dick), and Harry Potter (at least twice). Which is fine–don’t get me wrong–but I think that is part of what feels both adolescent and specific about this collection.

It also feels like Chen occasionally works too hard to mash some of his images together (see above list). Along those lines, the poems seem to occasionally lack a consistent finish, despite many of them seeming to tell a story. The above poem that ostensibly talks about snow, streets and writing concludes with a stanza about the listener forgetting a suitcase as they fly to another country “& the weather where your true love is/ governed by principles or persons you can’t name” which just seems abrupt from everything that went before.

Still, there’s a lot to like here. I think it will resonate more fully if one is finding themselves struggling with similar issues or in a similar age period.

‘Self Portrait As So Much Potential

Dreaming of one day being as fearless as a mango.

As friendly as a tomato. Merciless to chin & shirtfront.
Realizing I hate the word “sip.”
But that’s all I do.
I drink. So slowly.
& say I’m tasting it. When I’m just bad at taking in liquid.’

I agree; lots of potential.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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