Chen Chen, Sjohnna McCray tackle nuanced relationships, identity

Michael Schmeltzer May 1, 2017 0

When I Grow Up I Want to be a List of Further Possibilities by Chen Chen is the latest A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize winner from BOA Editions, and it’s easy to understand why.

While Emily Dickinson famously said poetry makes her feel as if the top of her head were taken off, Chen’s charming, aching poetry debut creates the sensation of hypersensitivity. I am placed firmly in the body and the surrounding world is made fresh. When Chen describes the sea as making “a sort of sensual / moo” or when he dreams of “one day being as fearless as a mango,” I am taken aback. How did I miss the empowering nature of this fruit, the common ground between sea and cow? This mix of bold imagination and gorgeous dream-logic welcomes the reader on every page. I am moved and delighted to the core until it feels as though I “fell in love in midair.”

The writing itself is as “friendly as a tomato,” but Chen’s poetry is in no way trite; he expertly navigates the challenges of being a queer Asian-American with lyrical grace and wisdom. Chen delves into the complexities of society, identity, and family through a unique lens that is critical without being cynical. He projects a joyful maturity that contains an expansive, childlike wonder combined with intellectual insight. It’s a delicate balance but he handles it like one born on a tightrope. He tackles struggles with compassion and well- placed humor. More than once I laughed out loud and then nearly doubled over as he turned a grin into a grimace with cutting commentary. It’s an effective poetic maneuver that strikes a powerful chord.

In the poem “Talented Human Beings,” Chen opens with “Every day I am asked to care about white people.” His humor, always with a slight bite, immediately disarms, and so when he follows this later with a line like “Pop Quiz: Who was / Vincent Chin? Theresa Hak Kyung Cha?” the impact stuns.

Chen acknowledges the wider history of the Asian-American experience in America while also writing from a personal perspective. He describes the domestic tension between his burgeoning queer identity as a teen and the expectations of his family. “I didn’t tell him I spent all night in a tree / because my mother slapped me / after I told her I might be gay. / I didn’t tell him that I hit her back.” Despite the conflicts Chen describes, I’m convinced, however, no matter how difficult it is, “it’s always possible / to love bigger & madder.” This is a masterful book I’ll revisit repeatedly.

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Sjohnna McCray’s prize-winning debut “Rapture” finds itself in some of the same troubled waters as Chen’s book of poetry: both authors tackle the nuanced relationships between parents and children as well as their own racial and sexual identities. Both convey a reverence to the people and experiences around them, but while Chen often evokes a sense of worshipful whimsy, McCray’s worship primarily acknowledges “darkness is / more of a presence than desire.”

Rapture” reads fairly chronologically and begins with the troubling courtship between his father, an American soldier, and Korean mother. In “Bedtime Story #1” he writes the couple strolls together “as if / they could… like an ordinary couple: / the unassuming black and the Korean whore / in the middle of the Vietnam War.” It’s a blunt ending with no poetic flourish to ease the blow. However, it’s not complete misery; McCray’s talent lies in his ability to contrast the darker moments with a luminous, lyrical touch. For instance, he pairs this direct ending with earlier descriptions of his father bringing candy from the base to give his mother. The minute the soldier “touches his pocket / the face she reserved for his English crumbled / like sweet toffee.” It’s a tender scene. McCray’s lines are so controlled, the music, rhythm, and pacing so finely tuned, one almost forgets the harsher truths he brings to the page. Even the mother, at one point, “forgets why she’s standing there” but the reminders of the “diaphragm and condoms in her purse” are ever present.

McCray allows the reader respite from the darkness through gorgeous language and musicality, but the poet’s gaze itself is un inching. Throughout the book he observes people, bodies of lovers and strangers, “the prickly hairs, the moles and bumps, / the scarred trenches along the shoulders.” He writes about his father’s prosthetic and the stump that remains of the leg. As the book’s title implies, however, it is with rapture McCray stares. His look sanctifies the subject even as the body “refuses the terms, / the slang-by-number words, / we try to assign.”

McCray may shed an “unwelcome influx of light” on the personal histories that haunt his family. He may see our bodies in a way that appears unflattering, but if there’s a lesson McCray wants us to learn, it’s that “There’s proof of God in light like this.”

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