When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilitiesby Chen Chen
Winner of the 2016, A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize; BOA Editions, 2017; 96 pp.
Reviewed by Luisa A. Igloria
Poetry as Transformation and Radical Joy
Among poetry readers, there will be those who talk about what they themselves describe as their “love/hate” feelings for poetry. They’ll talk about it as one might of a history of mostly failed relationships: some promise of beauty followed by the awkwardness and difficulty of approach; in the end, the unassailability, rejection, and a falling short of the effort at meaningful connection.
Such “bad experiences” lead to a general distrust of forms and lyric expression (Is it rhymey-rhymey? or I’m not really good at counting or patterns; or After everything I tried, I still don’t get it, etc.)—the notion that somehow it’s because poetry doesn’t use a currency allowing for the inclusion of ordinary life and language.
This was never the case when I taught Chen Chen’s When I Grow Up I Want to Be A List of Further Possibilities in poetry workshops over the past year. After encountering a poem like “Summer Was Forever”—in which the speaker confesses his longing for “the local paper boy on his route. His beanstalk frame/ & fragile bicycle” and then imagines his young ardor reciprocated,
…Our kissing would rhyme
with cardiac arrest. Birds would overthrow the cathedral towers.
I would have a magician’s hair, full of sleeves & saws,
unashamed to tell the whole town our first date was
in a leaky faucet factory. How we fell in love during jumps
on his tragic uncle’s trampoline. We fell in love in midair.
—my students held their hands over their hearts and basically (there really is no better word)—swooned.
Then there was the time I came home from teaching one night in spring, when my in-laws happened to be visiting. I’d left my copy of When I Grow Up I Want to Be A List of Further Possibilities on the coffee table, and an hour or so later found my 83-year-old mother-in-law in the middle of it, reading with fascination.
My mother-in-law might be the type of person who gamely plays Guitar Hero, or says that she likes Legos because she didn’t have those growing up. And it’s true that Chen’s poems are written in what 2016 A. Poulin, Jr. Prize judge Jericho Brown describes in the foreword as the “singular and sustained voice … of a speaker whose obsessive and curious nature is that of an adult who refuses to give up seeing through the eyes of an adolescent.” But I think what makes his work so infinitely appealing is its capacity to bring every kind of reader back to what poetry is supposed to be in the first place—a space of endless and transformative possibility, of buoyancy, of radical joy.
The themes in it are not necessarily new: displacement, the struggle for identity, acceptance, and belonging in both a familial and larger national context. These struggles are mediated by language and memory, both characterized by their gaps and imperfections. Family members aren’t always open to the speaker’s disclosures about queer identity. Mother “wants [her sons] to gulp up the world, spit out solid degrees, responsible/ grandchildren ready to gobble.” (“Self-Portrait as So Much Potential”) When he is thirteen, mother slaps him “for being dirty, diseased, led astray by Western devils,/ a dirty, bad son….” He can’t quite remember which of these memories “is the correct version, but what stays with [him]/ is the leaving, the cry/ the country splintering.” (“First Light”)
In the same poem, loyalty and family bonds insist on the perfect transmission of memories. This of course is impossible, but the speaker’s solution is to vividly reimagine the life he had as a boy before he was brought to America, because any memory is better than nothing at all:
I like to say we left at first light
with Chairman Mao himself chasing us in a police car,
my father fighting him off with firecrackers,
even though Mao was already over a decade
dead, & my mother says all my father did
during the Cultural Revolution was teach math,
which he was not qualified to teach, & swim & sunbathe
around Piano island, a place I ever read about
in my American textbooks, a place everybody in the family
says they took me to, & that I loved.
What is it, to remember nothing, of what one loved?
As for the frustrations, banalities, ennui, and heartbreak of everyday life— what Chen does is reinvigorate them through catalogs of devoted attention: plums in sweet wine, runaway teenagers, angels who don’t have the answers but can say “Lemme get back to you.” Rather than becoming mere sentiment and cliché, what results is “charm, intention, expectancy, and wonder,” a delight in “what magic language can make.” (Jericho Brown)
Chen is not interested in whimsy for whimsy’s sake, though there are plenty of pop culture references—
from LeVar Burton to Mr. Rogers to keytars, Power Rangers, gay nightclubs in Shanghai, tapioca pudding, movie-style extra butter microwave popcorn. Along with the quirks of language, they’re there because the poet is showing us the OK-ness of contradiction—how states of being are constantly, rapidly cycling from one thing to another. People and things can look, sound, and mean something beautiful, and other times they’re just like “dirt [that] only the light made…visible”—
Your mother is sick & all I can think of is how sick’s
also a word for “cool,” like “ill,” though maybe “ill”
is becoming outdated, & “sick” too...
(“Second Thoughts on a Winter Afternoon”)
In time, everything that happens to anyone can disappear or be taken for granted— just like the raised features of a once newly minted coin flattened almost to the point of indistinguishability after passing through so many hands. But Chen’s poems look at these moments again and throw them into surprising new pairings; it is then they surpass the condition of their banality.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is “In the City” – it’s about all kinds of marvels and “feat[s] of engineering:” bridges, pleated pork and chive dumplings, the skyline in Brooklyn, the fact that there exist things like low sodium soy sauce and that even as people can drink water from the tap his mother “boils the water, though she knows she doesn’t have to anymore.” In New York, a city where migrants are still “struggling to get/ to the Joy, the Luck,” their prodigiousness and stalwartness is heroic, even epic; and mother’s kettle, also a “feat of engineering,” could manage stupendous transformations:
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.
In the title poem, Chen Chen knows how one always is many things to oneself and to others. So, he is both “the one/ [his] parents raised [him] to be” as well as (why not?) the one who can wear “the blue & the red./The green, the hot pink.”
In “Song of the Anti-Sisyphus,” he invites us to rebel against the naysayers, the purveyors of dire warnings, all those who traffic in limited warranties:
I want the journey to be long. & strange, like a map
drawn in snow by our shadows shivering. I want to shiver
against you, into you.
. . .
I want to be the Anti-Sisyphus, in love
with repetition, in love, in love. Foolish repetition,
wise repetition. I want more hours, I want insomnia, I want
to replace the clock tick with tambourines.
The book’s final poem, “Poplar Street,” shows a speaker practicing how to talk to people about mundane and important things, about family, about himself. He concludes by wishing for the opportunity to always begin— and for us to “continue meeting as if we’ve just been given our names.”
Like him, may we all be so fortunate.
Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com