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Shout Out to Ken Chen
Selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, Ken Chen’s debut, Juvenilia, engages the notion of artistic expression as process of maturation: the speaker reaches to the memory of his youth (the past) to construct a portrait of what colors his adult world view (the present). There are many questions in the now about love and relationships, and the search for answers takes the poet on a journey to the source of his emotional–and artistic–development: “When I was little, I thought that the water came out of the showerhead because it was crying. This is because I heard my mother crying and thought it was the showerhead.”
The speaker’s upbringing is marked by his parent’s disaffected marriage (“faces that would not kiss in life”) and eventual separation. The inability to communicate, an affliction that spans across generations for this Chinese American family, manifests itself as a mysterious illness on the young speaker who sees his relatives succumb to the ills of unhappiness bottled up within: “My grandmother didn’t call when her stomach bled. Calling would wake my mom. What can you really say about it? He couldn’t talk at the funeral and I envy the trees, who know no sentiment. Not branches. Roots burying themselves always into the earth. My Father tells my brother to shut up.”
A number of the poems in Juvenilia are delivered in prose with associative leaps that gesture toward stream-of-consciousness. At the very least they come across as urgent. That pressure is the speaker’s attempt to reconcile his formative years with his grown-up aches, hence water connected to grief as a recurring trope (“Heartbreak is a leak of self.”). The second part of the book, “Banal Love Songs,” is a demonstration of the poet giving shape to how own matters of the heart:
Can you believe
we were strangers once, dry
and unhatched, the future waiting over us like a pool?
June burst the blue sack
of rain and we huddled downstreet under ruined umbrella.
a bottle at my roof at two AM. I hid Dunhills
in your pocket, the smog sky a lunar tune.
Tonight, the rain unspools.
The rain taps the nightlong glass desperate,
begging to be let in.
Well, let me moisten you with time, until the wet embalms us.
Let love flood us its lucky era.
Let this wet epoch soak the bedroom till our necks
wear lakes for collars.
The lifeguard states–Do not allow anyone of any age
to swim alone; drowning occurs
to adults too–and now the waters kiss us to the roof!
That time we kissed each other all night, did we
hickey the redless flesh-juiced time out of us
or were we just trying to wet each other
into pure duration?
Our pink exhalations steam towards the sky,
yet I find myself startled
by the emptied room, as you too evaporate.
Dawn chalks its blooming line.
We were immortal once, but look now at my skin
wrinkling into marble.
Morning, the world’s white roof,
warms the waters we accrued.
The rain dries upward.
This bedroom, the drained moat.
The book comes to a close with a section coyly titled “The Invisible Memoir,” a long poem that looks toward Li Yu, “the last ruler of the Southern Tang Dynasty, the inventor of the confessional voice in Chinese lyric poetry,” as a vehicle for filling in the emotional blanks left empty by a broken home–and by extension, a broken life. But the true burden is not in the writing of the autobiographical, but in the knowledge that the wounds remain always fresh when a different reader discovers them: “For each new friend me make, the past becomes an unintended secret.”
Juvenilia is a wonderful debut, simultaneously devastating and beautiful. If this expansive journey could be compressed into a single sentence, it might be Chen’s own line: “The tears of Chinese mermaids are said to be pearls.”