- You May Visit the Cosmos but You May Not Speak of It (or on the Tackiness of Elegy). by Ken Chen
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If you can command these elements to silence …
dark matter: Because my father had died into an object, I fled my work, my friends, my art, New York. I fled my life so I could also become object. Youmna followed, but these memories are fictional (performance) and so we will drape her with a white cloth. Having fled my life, I am sitting on my bed, operating this memory indoors, underground, in basements, in locked bedrooms, in any indoor container that might further package me away from the fact and still did they pursue, still did they strike the darting arrows of the Death Star, that black radiance of leeches that flung itself down from the hot surfaces of the griefsun. The famishing lines tracked me inside, tracked me around corners, lassoing me into the air. “Where does this black sun come from?” Julia Kristeva asked. “Out of what eerie galaxy do its invisible, lethargic rays reach me, pinning me down to the ground, to my bed, compelling me to silence, to renunciation?” And this is when Youmna lifted the sheet that had been cast over my body. “Why did you cover yourself like this, like an object at the morgue? What were you thinking?”
I said, “I thought what I had covered was the world.”
the unsayable: One of the traditional paradoxes of the dead is how they do not emit information. Because the dead do not emit light, which cannot escape the event horizon of the deceased, they can only be detected by the symptoms they leave on the surrounding matter, the haloed matter burning at their corona, the white marks scarring the X-rays. A person can survive within the dead once it has gravitationally collapsed. This happens for only a second from the observer’s eye, but, because of gravitational time dilation, grief occurs a nearly infinitely long time for the person who chooses to live inside the dead.
tlacuilo, graphic novelist at the world’s end: In those California days after my dad died, I felt the life began to seep out of me into the ground and so I brought my sneakers to the cobbler for resoling, which strangely enough did not mitigate my newfound grief. Sometimes I would find myself gazing out the window at the garden my mom cultivated behind her house, often while performing an Edwardian pose of wan melancholy, and as I approached, the glass would immediately darken as though saturated with an egglike blue shadow. (I later realized this shadow was caused by my head blocking the lamplight and decided to simply lean back.) I found myself stricken with headaches for some reason when I neglected to eat for days. I began laying my head on the carpet as though listening for footsteps, which I did often in those days, perhaps I believed the sun would itself walk inside and incite me, when I saw a woman in my mother’s backyard. I did not recognize her.
She crouched on the ground holding what I thought was a knife. I thought I saw her carving the earth into sections. As I came closer, I saw that what she grasped in her hand was a quill, though she held it with such authority that she looked as though she held the earth by its handle. All the cracks that scrawled between the grass—I saw that these were not cracks. They were sketches. And what a strange thing, looking back on it, how I never wondered what this woman was doing in my mother’s backyard. She glanced up at me as I approached and said, “Everyone I know is dead. I am also dead, but someone must stay behind and document my death. I am the only archivist, so I remain suspended between death and history.”
I realized what was occurring and asked, selfishly, “So it’s possible to talk to someone who is dead?”
“You do it all the time. It’s like what Youmna told you to write into your eulogy.”
“Yeah, okay.” I paused. “But he never remembers to talk back to me.”
She took out two cubes, possibly carved from bone, and threw them at my feet. “What’s that for?” I kneeled closer to her. “Is this fortune telling?”
“It’s your stats and hit points.”
I laughed. “You’re sending me into a dungeon?”
“No,” she said. “You are going on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage to hell.”
initiation: To prepare for your descent (for there was no question of which direction you would eventually end up), you began your initiation into three domains of sorcery: the silent vows of grief; the generative magics obtained through meditation upon the colonial archive; and apprenticeship into all manner of low-level magics, including wonder-making, liberating demons, clairvoyance of the past, fierce activities, special jumping abilities, control over the three worlds, abridgment of one’s own lifespan through nicotine inhalation, research methods, the augmentation of merit and pleasure by generating poetry using your body, red optic blasts, melancholy of the spleen, a frequent customer stamp card for Woorijip Korean deli. Your first prophesied guru was the Tlacuilo, the woman historian who had ventured to the underworld by standing witness at the end of the Mexica and the cosmogony of the New World. She had painted omens of the future that now served you as diagrams of the past: the two-headed man who presented his body to Moctezuma, the comet whose banner waved across the sky and heralded the origin of the next kingdom, and the pale ghosts in steel skins who came as gods and guests, the ghosts who at the Festival of Toxcatl came to kill us. One of them sawed off a man’s head, another speared the eye of a warrior who was betrothed to your sister. The Tlacuilo led you to the black lake that Mexico City had become. You did not know if you were in a fantasy or the past. You were in a fantasy and the past. Small skiffs wobbled by, as did wounded bodies that dyed the waters red. Surrounded by corpses levitating upon the waters, she taught you the first sorcery, that of death’s erasure. She cut off the hole of your mouth so you could say nothing, nothing commensurate with death, nothing can be commensurate to that dark infinity, and so you lost no breaths and so you followed her from the shores (sores) and the waterline slowly became the horizon line of the sky and you could breathe. White fish flew by, gliding without effort. You looked one in the eye and it sucked its cow lips silently at you. She said that this was Atlantis or one of many Atlantises and you saw yourself walking beside her on a road towards an underwater city that you could see only as a speck in the far distance. You tripped on the body of a dead man, seemingly Chinese, his body weighed down with rock-filled bags. The Tlacuilo, who by this time walked far in front of you, came back and told you this man’s name but asked you to stay silent. She led you about a mile further down the road towards the first station set aside for pilgrims such as yourself. Here she transmitted another teaching. There will also be other ages after this one, she said. Other suns will rise and fall. I will instruct you towards the attainment of a new title: The Cowerer from the Sun. She taught you how to crawl on the seabed, a weeping hog crawling on hands and knees. My final teaching is this: Go in fear of the sun. Having said this, she set her own body down in a fetal position and waited for the seaweed to smother her.
liberating the sun demon spell:
Moneyed sun of vampiric Western powers
The civilizing light of the Atlantic state’s sun
Radiance of iPhones and global financialization
I shun you in this wrathful manifestation
Glutton sun, I call your name of power
Call you out from enclosure, colony, and bower
Sun I name you: Radioactive Liquid
Ocean of interests and incentives
Shipping lanes for slave and spice and coolie
Inescapable moisture of air and the body
Marinating us all complicit
quandary spell: If we are all complicit in the sun’s radiance or if the sun is too sublime to be rolled from its central solar spot, then what is the objective of being revolting to that star?
middle fantasy flight of passage:
You served as sentry incompetent, standing watch
pre-American seabeds for centuries,
so slow did you live below the waters, you saw the ocean
as simply a second more infinite air. The water’s lip
became that line that separates sky from
celestial space. One day you spied a person flying,
prone. He wafted down and you saw a man starved to skull
sick and struggling in the sky, descending
through the red gulps of sharks.
You saw him fall five fathoms, an ariel who found
his free wings stripped and him imagined into caliban.
Shining anglerfish for flashlight, you saw that he died silently
before he touched down upon the seabed.
Of course he had not flown.
He had drowned.
Your mouth stricken.
You could say nothing.
You could think nothing
commensurate with these absolutes.
Had I been any god of power, I would
Have sunk the sea within the earth
influence: If influence spoken by Spenser portends the star’s fateful persuasion, flowing and fluctuating, does influenza mean the disease of fate?
the stars: Migrant to death’s second nation, Dante / emerges into the purging state and gazes up / at a supernal cross: four stars joyous, / isomorphs to the four cardinal virtues. “Dante is no bookkeeper of the literal ... [The] constellations are best taken as allegorical.” Although one of the largest star radii observed belongs to the glowering red hypergiant VY Canis Majoris, that terrible and sublime throne whose dominion could swallow our own sun nine billion times, poor yellow pebble celestial, and whose own death slain by nova during that final day shall illumine our infinite interior caverns of night — we might also regard Canis Majoris’s gigantism as hypothetical: though massive, this hypergiant is a thousand times more diffuse than air. The size of this terrorful star depends on what words we wield to define its stellar radius (e.g., whether by density or optical-depth). You can shrink the most sublime of stars using only your language. Vaporware star, luminosity leached of borders, you are all fictions.
human song: Perhaps it is the case that you never get over things. You decide you will no longer engage with them. You answer with silence until you are reminded once again of the wound and requested to be human.
poem written after slingshotting around the sun to the future when you too are a father:
Perfect baby perched on high chair, washed
and newly diapered, photogenic but on Facebook unshared,
I wonder the purpose
of the personal in death or politics, the former displacing
one’s personality into a mute purgatory perpetual, the latter
being a plural affair, more systemic and dispersed
than private feelings — but do these secret fruits grow and burrow
inside your grief, growing riper until they burst into
black sweetness? Is the point not the immolation of the person
but their muteness, their non-divulgence? You point to the window.
You show your child the snow outside.
The snow’s white war against the world.
The snow that has so superbly coated only
the tops of branches with erasure.
Sometimes it is through the hidden underside
that we find ourselves most bare.
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Poet and attorney Ken Chen earned his BA from the University of California, Berkeley and JD from Yale Law School. His debut collection of poetry, Juvenilia (2010), won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. The book traces the development of a poet from child to adulthood and is marked by “the inability to communicate, an affliction that spans across generations for this Chinese American family,” according to poet Rigoberto González. Judge Louise Glück noted that Chen’s book is “exhilaratingly modern … while at the same time never losing his attachment to voice, and the implicit claims of voice: these are poems of intense feeling.”
Chen’s poetry and nonfiction essays have appeared in journals such as Fence, Boston Review, Best American Essays, and elsewhere. He lives and works in New York City, where he directs the Asian American Writers’ Workshop and founded CultureStrike, a national organization seeking to bring artists into...
Poems By Ken Chen
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