When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of
Further Possibilities by Chen Chen
BOA Editions Ltd., 2017; 96 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Identity is at the core of Chen Chen’s full-length debut When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, but it doesn’t limit the collection any. Notions of self instead expand to reflect the very real, very true humanity we all experience. Though life would be easier if we were the one thing someone else—a mother, a father, a friend, or a significant other—thinks we are, Chen’s poems revel in all the different ways we exist, love, and are loved.
The poems explore gay, immigrant, and Asian American perspectives, and often do so by mixing humor with seriousness so that, maybe, some of the rejection he faces for each part of him might be mitigated. Take for instance these lines from “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential”: “I am not the heterosexual neat freak my mother raised me to be. / I am a gay sipper, & my mother has placed what’s left of her hope on my brothers.”
Or in these others from “Nature Poem”:
Once, in a Starbucks, the cashier
did not quite finish the n on my Chen, & when my tall mocha was ready,
they called out for Cher. I preferred this by far, but began to think
the problem was Starbucks. Why can’t you see me? Why can’t I stop
needing you to see me?
But for as much as these multiple identities frustrate his life, they also seem to motivate Chen to keep searching for the connection to his most authentic life. In “Poem in Noisy Mouthfuls,” a writer friend’s off-hand remark to Chen that “All you write about / is being gay or Chinese” compels the poet to consider what “being a real queer” is: is it about keeping up the fight for equality or, perhaps, “marriage, house, 1 kid, 2 cats”? The meditation continues and expands and finds new directions to explore before returning to the response he had wanted to address to his “friend”:
Wish I had said, No, I already write about everything—
& everything is salt, noise, struggle, hair,
carrying, kisses, leaving, myth, popcorn,
mothers, bad habits, questions.
Chen writes about everything and does so in myriad ways. The poems vary from short-lined to long-lined to extra-long-lined, and at times, their inflections remind of Neruda, Whitman, Kafka, and Michael Burkard, a breathtaking poet and one of Chen’s teachers who’s celebrated in “Kafka’s Axe & Michael’s Vest.”
The array of perspectives, styles, and voices shows Chen Chen can go in a number of directions in the future, and any of them will be just as genuine as the others. Each of us is large, and each of us contains multitudes, after all. When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is a testament to Chen’s honesty to himself and his versatility, both qualities that will be admired in all his books sure to come.