I first encountered When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities in a poetry workshop (thank you, Yi, for introducing it to me), and part of what I loved about the experience of reading it for the first time was getting to discuss it with the rest of the class afterward. In an attempt to replicate that experience here, I turned to the closest thing I have to a literary community in quarantine: Goodreads.
Now, an interesting thing often happens when people read anything that is unquestionably queer or ethnic: they either reduce the book to its applicable labels (“This is a book of gay, Chinese, immigrant poetry”), or attempt to talk around them altogether (“This is a book of poems about love, family, and coming of age in America”). In any case—but especially this one—I would argue that the book needs to be described as all of the above. Love, family, and coming of age in America are inextricable from being gay, Chinese, and a first-generation immigrant; the experiences Chen details in his poetry are made richer by of the context in which they occur. For how can you fully understand the ecstatic intimacy in the lines “we, a madness of sweat & rope, / ropes of semen lassoing each other, closer—” without the knowledge that Chen’s family reacted harshly to his coming out, that being intimate is a form of resistance in a country that does everything in its power to distance itself from you? And Chen is so very generous with this knowledge, nourishing the reader with imagery of delicate food (“The small kitchen, the small bowl of water / between us. How we dipped index finger, thumb. / Sealed each dumpling like tucking in a secret, goodnight. / The meat of a memory. A feat of engineering.”) and complicated longing (“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.”).
One Goodreads reviewer calls the collection “radically tender,” which is the best two-word description of the book I can think of. Another states that they “love the repetition of the name” as if it were an artistic choice, which is the clearest indication I’ve ever seen of someone who does not understand (and does not bother trying to understand) how Chinese names or Chen’s poetry works. As I scroll down the page, I notice several common reasons cited for why some of the reviewers don’t like this book as much as they could have. The imagery is too absurd; the metaphors too strange and disconnected; there are too many Millenial-era pop culture references; the themes aren’t explored as deeply as they could be. I wonder, if they had had a gay, Chinese, immigrant friend to walk them through the poems, if they wouldn’t have changed their minds on all counts. Because a queer person implicitly understands that a hyperawaress of the physicality of one’s body commonly stems from the danger and fear of being singled out as an other, a target. A Chinese person implicitly understands that food and strained parental relationships are common symbols of culture, heritage, and a brutal kind of love. An immigrant implicitly understands that language is never simply language, but a bridge, blessing, and burden. The way Chen has presented these connections is not always overt, and I personally enjoy the lightness with which he allows the implications of these hard-hitting themes of identity to simmer in the reader’s mind.
As I close out this blog post/one-person pseudo-poetry class, I leave you with a Goodreads review of my own:
“With great lyricism, tenderness, and breathtaking use of imagery and metaphor, Chen Chen’s debut collection is an ode to the many complicated relationships of a young, gay, first-generation Chinese immigrant to America: with his family, with his culture, with his country, with himself. These pages contain a multitude of lines that will linger long after you have put the book down. 5/5, highly recommend.”