By Anya Shukla
In his poem “Talented Human Beings,” Chen Chen confronts the reader: “Pop Quiz: Who was / Vincent Chin? Theresa Hak Kyung Cha? / Group Project: Name one book by Maxine Hong Kingston / not titled The Woman Warrior” (pg. 98). I am proud to say that I knew two out of the three! I feel very cultured.
Obviously, I get Chen’s larger point with this poem: we don’t learn about or appreciate the history of Asian Americans. (And it just so happened that he chose examples of Asian Americans that I knew about.) But I’m still pretty proud of myself.
Review: In his debut poetry collection, “When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities,” Chen Chen explores various facets of his identity: most prominently, his relationship to his parents and to America, his sexuality, and his familial history. Formative experiences during his childhood—a study abroad trip to France, for example, or when Chen briefly ran away from his family at 13—connect various poems throughout the book.
As the title suggests, “When I Grow Up” is imbued with childlike wonder. Chen paints pictures of the world through a clear, undiluted gaze, using unconventional language to describe moments others might pass over. My Rating: 5/5.
What I Loved: There’s something so wholesome about Chen’s poetry “voice.” He mashes together intense, classically poetic insights with humorous, ironic lines, and the contrast makes me sit up and take notice. A poem can start with the serious, “every day I’m asked to care about white people, / especially if they’re being kidnapped in New England” (pg. 96), then transition to casual relatability: “In college I strived / to be an Asian American sex symbol, but got too busy / trying to get a hot white boy to text me back” (pg. 97). His words bring a smile to your face.
Although an adult, Chen has not lost the gift of youthful introspection. Like a child, he cuts to the quick of something precious: “Tonight I cannot believe / the skyline because the skyline believes in me, forgives me my drooling / astonishment over it & over the fact that this happens, / this night, every night, its belief, glittering mad & megawatt like the dreams / of parents” (pg. 126-127). I honestly can’t describe how that line feels to me… Unjaded? Pure? Like I can picture Chen on the roof of an apartment building in New York, staring wide-eyed at the world? All of the above?
I also appreciate the down-to-earth nature of Chen’s poetry. I’ve always thought of the poetic form as an esoteric art that revels in mystery. Even mainstream, modern-day poetry has a heightened awareness to it; you know every word was carefully contemplated before being dropped into its proper verse, the author like a shopper inspecting an apple for mold. Chen’s poems are different. He’s obviously put thought and time into them—they are beautifully formed—yet his writing never feels calculated. After all, he regularly discusses “unseemly” topics: “I’m afraid of farting, even around people I love. Do you think your mother / loves you when you fart? / Does your mother love you / all the time? Have you ever doubted?” (pg. 244-255). Because of this casual approach, each poem in “When I Grow Up” feels raw and human.
What I Didn’t Love: I know I went on about Chen’s writing style in the above section, but I don’t know how I feel about it. Was his voice novel? Yes. Did I absolutely adore it? As someone who prefers angst over childlike wonder, not always...
Ordinarily, I would have gone into Harsh Reviewer Mode and made this a 4.75/5 star book. But “When I Grow Up” made me cry, like, 12 times, so I’m gonna give it the full five stars.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “Do I have to / forgive in order to love? Or do I have to love / for forgiveness to even be possible?” (pg. 246).
Up next: “Sister Outsider" by Audre Lorde.